Doctor Who

Starring: Colin Baker
Big Finish Productions
RRP: £14.99
ISBN: 978 1 84435 286 9
Available 30 September 2007

The Doctor and Evelyn arrive in Rome, 100 BC, or thereabouts. When they meet a young man called Julius Caesar, Evelyn is excited, but her excitement soon turns to confusion. What if the famous Caesar had never been born? And surely you can’t heal a wound in time with just a bit of sticking plaster...?

Following the critical success of Circular Time, the folks at Big Finish have elected to reuse the anthology format of four individual single-episode stories for this release, the 100th title in the company’s monthly series of Doctor Who audio dramas. Unlike Circular Time, each story is penned by a different writer, all of them major players in the success of Big Finish’s output to date.

For instance, Jacqueline Rayner, the author of 100 BC, was the creator of Evelyn Smythe (Maggie Stables), the company’s first original travelling companion for the Doctor (i.e. not a character from the television series). As such, Rayner is the perfect choice to write for Evelyn. She also knows her stuff when it comes to ancient Rome, having a degree in ancient history and having previously visited the period in The Stone Rose.

By virtue of their brevity, each of these stories is able to pursue a quite weird and/or silly idea, one that might have either stretched credulity too far or simply run out of steam had it been allowed to run as a full-length serial. In the case of 100 BC, we are faced with the prospect that the Doctor (Colin Baker) and Evelyn might have accidentally prevented Julius Caesar from being born. However, I found it too much of a stretch to accept that Evelyn would allow the course of human history to be threatened just to make a point about sexual equality.

100 BC is OK, but it’s my least favourite episode on this double CD.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: a wunderkind, who was composing by the age of five. But it’s tempting to wonder whether his longevity has overshadowed his genius. Would his music be better respected if he’d died as a young man, if he’d never lived to compose the score for the Italian Job remake...?

Talk about weird ideas! Robert Shearman’s My Own Private Wolfgang features a Mozart who did not die young. The composer is portrayed by John Sessions, who plays all the other parts as well (with the exception of the Doctor and Evelyn), including a butler and a mysterious masked man. There is a good and clever reason for this casting, beyond mere economics, but I won’t disclose it here...

The play asks the question of whether it is better for artists and their work to come to a distinct end, to quit while they’re ahead, and whether continuing something forever dilutes its genius and results in a decrease in quality. Modern equivalents of Mozart include Kurt Cobain, James Dean and Marilyn Monroe, who lived fast, died young, and invite one to speculate “what if...?”

The writer mentions Dean when discussing the story in the CD’s extra features, during which he also assures us that his idea’s relevance to Doctor Who originated when he was writing Dalek for the 2005 television series. He was worried that, if the show had not been a success, the public might have wished that the programme had stayed dead. He needn’t have worried, of course, but nevertheless the message of this story can be interpreted as an assertion that Who and, in particular, Big Finish and the Doctors whose incarnations it has prolonged, might have been going on for too long.

However, so long as the stories are of this quality, long may they continue.

Once upon a time... Jacob Williams was going to tell his grandson the tale of Sleeping Beauty but he realises he has told that one far too many times already, so instead he speaks of how he once met this man called the Doctor. It’s a tale of love and death, and of a family with a terrifying secret...

There’s another big name in Joseph Lidster’s Bedtime Story: Frank Finlay. However, unlike John Sessions’s omnipresent role in My Own Private Wolfgang, Finlay has a comparative bit part. He plays Old Jacob, the narrator of this tale, his younger self being played by Will Thorp.

Both Thorp and his co-star Lucy Paterson appear in two of the episodes on this double CD, this one and 100 BC, but I only know this because I’ve looked at the cast list and have listening to the CD extras. Such is the versatility of these actors and their vocal qualities that I would never have guessed they were doubling up.

And talking of vocal versatility, here we get to hear another side of Maggie Stables...

Bedtime Story has a good, ghostly flavour to it, not unlike that of Sapphire & Steel, another Big Finish series to which Lidster has been an influential contributor. This is the least anarchic of the four plays, being dark and sinister where the others are cheeky, playful and tend to concern time-hopping, altering history and meeting past and future selves. As such, it adds some much-needed variety to the collection.

Time, dates, numbers - these are all essential ingredients of the Doctor’s seemingly infinite travels. But sometimes a Time Lord’s life can be quite hectic, not to mention dangerous. Someone has assassinated the Doctor, and he has just 100 days to find out who did it. This involves spying on himself...

As director/co-executive producer Nicholas Briggs admits during the CD extras, many fans (myself included) might have expected more than one Doctor to appear in this anniversary release. He explains that pure chance played a large part in the fact that the 100th release happens to be a Sixth Doctor tale. He also argues that multi-Doctor stories tend to prove disappointing. However, it needn’t have been a single multi-Doctor story. Four episodes... four Doctors... why not just have one in each episode?

Paul Cornell does his best to compensate by managing to make 100 Days of the Doctor a kind of multi-Doctor story but without actually involving any of the other lead actors. Indeed, the only other cast member is Briggs, playing the assassin. We only hear about those other Doctors and their companions as the Sixth Doctor and Evelyn observe them from a distance as they try to track down the assassin.

The notion that, as well as being able to backtrack to previous landing sites, the TARDIS can also trace where it will set down in its own future is a rather unconvincing contrivance, but it does allow the writer to tie in the Seventh and Eighth Doctors as well as the Fifth, plus their companions. The story celebrates these characters’ strengths, especially those that were created by Big Finish, such as Erimem, Hex, Charley and Lucie. However, when the Sixth Doctor refers to the Eutermesan C’rizz as his first non-humanoid companion, he is mistaken. Evidently he and Cornell have forgotten about K-9 and Kamelion.

The writer even manages to tie in the adventures of Bernice Summerfield and the alternative Doctors of the Unbound universes, as well as name-checking the spin-off series Sarah Jane Smith and UNIT. Yes, it’s one big pat on the back for Big Finish, but intelligently done and well deserved.

Richard McGinlay

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