Doctor Who
Minuet in Hell

Starring: Paul McGann
Big Finish Productions
ISBN 1 903654 05 X
Available now

The dawn of the 21st century sees the birth of America's 51st state: Malebolgia. Brigham Elisha Dashwood III, evangelical statesman and pioneer of a new therapy for mental illness, is the favourite for the state's first governor. Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart is present at Malebolgia's inauguration, conducting a secret investigation of Dashwood's facilities, where one of the mental patients claims to know the Brigadier of old. Meanwhile, an amnesiac Charley finds herself working as a hostess at the Hell Fire Club, where all manner of wicked activities include demon worship...

It's been a good month for fans of the Brigadier, who also appears in one of April's BBC novels, The Shadow in the Glass. However, the nature of this story means that he and the Doctor don't spend much time together on this occasion. It's also annoying, to a continuity buff like myself, that the Brigadier (Nicholas Courtney) fails to recognise the Eighth Doctor, despite having met him in 1997 in the Virgin Books novel The Dying Days. (The Brig's previous Big Finish adventure, The Spectre of Lanyon Moor, had been careful not to contradict the mythology of the books.)

Like Sword of Orion before it, this story was originally produced as part of the Audio Visuals series of amateur cassettes back in the 1980s, although the setting (among other things) has been changed from the original Hell Fire Club of 1760s London to the club's 21st-century recreation. This relocation means that we are inflicted with some over-the-top renditions of southern-states accents, the most extreme of which comes courtesy of Morgan Deare as Senator Waldo Pickering, who makes his portrayal of Hawk in Delta and the Bannermen seem positively restrained. Somewhat gentler on the ears is Helen Goldwyn as Pickering's granddaughter, Becky Lee Kowalczyck, a kind of southern Buffy, who is adept at kicking demon butt and provides a spirited foil to the strait-laced Brigadier.

The activities of the Hell Fire Club, where companion Charley (India Fisher) is forced to don a number of erotic outfits and threatened with a whip, would be too unsavoury for Who if it were presented on TV or perhaps even in a novel. Charley's decidedly casual attitude to her plight may help to lighten the tone, but doesn't seem like a very realistic reaction.

Meanwhile McGann gets a relatively small, but pivotal, role as he spends the majority of the story suffering, like Charley, from amnesia. This is a condition that afflicts his incarnation far too often, having also cropped up in the 1996 TV movie, the 1997 novel The Eight Doctors, and the ongoing BBC Books series.

The highlight of this adventure is undoubtedly the part played by Nicholas Briggs who, thanks to writers Alan W Lear and Gary Russell, is given an ingenious opportunity to hark back to his portrayal of the Doctor in the Audio Visuals days. (Don't read this next bit until you've listened to the CDs, but this story could offer a way for the AVs to be incorporated into the licensed Who universe - they could all be past adventures of the real Doctor, as remembered by the delusional mind of Gideon Crane.)

This is the weakest entry in what has generally been an excellent series of stories starring Paul McGann (another six are already in preparation for 2002). However, Nick Briggs and Nick the Brig make it well worth listening to.

Richard McGinlay