Over 30 years since his last on-screen performance as Sil, Nabil Shaban is back in The Devil Seeds of Arodor, an affectionate homage to 1980s Doctor Who that comments on the state of things in 2019.
Reeltime Pictures latest straight to video spin-off (though two cinema screenings are scheduled in London and Derby) Sil and the Devil Seeds of Arodor is a tense courtroom drama, a love story, an incisive satire and, at times, absolutely hilarious. A few minutes into the first episode, you start to wonder why it’s taken so long for Sil to return to our screens.
Sil is one of, if not the greatest Doctor Who villain of the 1980s. His repulsive and vile business practices tapped into the ‘greed is good’ philosophy of Thatcher’s Britain and Reagan’s America. It’s disappointing on a political and societal level that Sil is more relevant than ever in the time of Boris and Trump. It’s further indicative of the morass we currently find ourselves in that Philip Martin’s script was completed at the start of the year, and could easily have been written yesterday. As depressing as all of that is, Sil and the Devil Seeds of Arodor is still very enjoyable indeed.
Martin’s work has always been fiercely political and the story he’s devised finds Sil awaiting trial for “damaging the future of the youth of the Eurozone” through serious drug trafficking offences. Soon enough, he’s abandoned by his employers, the Universal Monetary Fund (or Ooomf as Sil insists on calling them) and left to use all of his cunning and guile to avoid judgement. Sil’s repeated protestations of being set-up and unfairly treated could have been pulled from Donald Trump’s Twitter feed.
Placing Sil front and centre as simultaneously protagonist and antagonist affords Nabil Shaban the ability to show us hitherto unseen sides of Sil, cornered, desperate, with even the potential for Sil to be a romantic lead. The complex nature of Sil’s relationship with the enigmatic Mistress Na (Sophie Aldred) is one of the mysteries at the core of the story and provides it with one of it’s most memorable scenes.
Shaban is clearly having a ball exploring these aspects of the character and is vindicated in his long-held belief that Sil deserves his own show. Through the direction, editing and production design Devil Seeds of Arodor allows us to imagine an alternative 1980s where the BBC commissioned a four-part Sil spin-off.
Director and producer Keith Barnfather made the decision to split the 105-minute film into four parts during the editing process. Where it works well is in giving us our traditional Doctor Who cliffhangers but with a fresh spin. Sil’s villainy gives the audience some rather complex moral decisions about whether or not they want him to survive into the next episode. It’s less successful if you’re watching it in one sitting, as the cliffhangers and recaps can really hamper the pacing.
Due to the generic conventions of the courtroom drama, the studio sets and Devil Seeds’ modest budget, it can often feel like you’re watching a stage play. This isn’t necessarily a problem, given the strength of Nabil Shaban’s performance and his double act with Christopher Ryan, whose shambling physicality belies a furious and funny reprise of his role as Lord Kiv. Where it does bring things down is in the blocking of scenes where, in mid-shot, you can clearly see some of the actors patiently awaiting their next line.
That said, there is a clear attempt to lend some rich, cinematic texture to the world built by Philip Martin’s script. Phil Newman’s production design features lots of clean chrome and deep blues, photographed by cinematographer Rob Thrush, with the flair and atmospheric lighting missing from a lot of 1980s Doctor Who. Chris Thompson’s CGI lunar landscapes similarly lend a touch of sweeping sci-fi that establishes the location of Sil’s internment effectively. Some of this is momentarily undone in an early scene where a bloke in a Boba Fett costume walks down a corridor on his way to the departing lunar shuttle.
It’s impossible to be too harsh though because while there are some shortcomings in the production, the story and the characters more than makeup for them. The central story of big business believing itself to be untouchable and beyond reproach is so pertinent and Nabil Shaban’s fourth (have there really been so few?) performance as Sil is worth the price of admission alone. In the tradition of classic Doctor Who, it’s a lot easier to overlook an errant Star Wars cosplayer or some visible joins in Sophie Aldred’s prosthetics when the story is as gripping and the performances are as knockout as they are here. Barnfather should be very proud of their attempts to recapture and reimagine 1980s television for a 2019 audience.
Sil and the Devil Seeds of Arodor is released on November 4th and is available to preorder now.
When we last left the Doctor, Liv, Helen and the Eleven they had all barely escaped the Ravenous with their lives. And yet, in the closing moments of Ravenous 3, we were let in on the secret of the Eleven’s true motives for saving everyone’s lives.
The most recent series of 8th Doctor adventures comes to a dramatic conclusion in Ravenous 4. With the future of the Timelords at threat from their past, the Doctor and his companions have to contend with not just the Eleven but four separate incarnations of his oldest enemy, The Master. Will everyone make it out alive?
Matt Fitton’s Whisper, which opens the set, picks up almost immediately from where the previous boxed set ended. The Doctor decides to seek help for the Eleven, as thanks for saving everyone from the Ravenous. His answer lies in a facility for mental recuperation, the only problem is that the staff and patients of said facility are all dead, with only a small band of survivors sheltering from a monster that can only hunt by sound. We’re certainly on tried and tested base-under-siege territory, with the added influence of the 2018 film A Quiet Place.
However, Whisper isn’t really about the monsters. It’s far more interested in its exploration of the tensions within the TARDIS team. This allows for some incredibly tense scenes between Nicola Walker and Mark Bonnar who have such great chemistry together. Liv has always been a more cynical and pragmatic companion than most, in sharp contrast to the Eighth Doctor’s hopeful nature. It’s a contrast that is used to great effect in Whisper, which poses questions about how dangerous the Doctor’s faith in people can be.
It’s a theme that continues through Planet of Dust to the concluding two-parter, as the Eleven continues to manipulate the Doctor into fulfilling his nefarious plot which involves locating an ancient tomb. Another of the Doctor’s enemies is on the planet, too, enslaving the locals in order to unearth the same thing. The manner of enslavement is one of his most ingenious, and dare I say it, cruel schemes and Geoffrey Beevers is excellent at playing an increasingly desperate Master approaching his final end.
Matt Fitton keeps quite a few plates spinning here, giving us a decent Master story, a traditional “Doctor and companions liberate an enslaved planet” story, whilst simultaneously adding to established Timelord mythology and setting the gears in motion for the finale. That Planet of Dust never feels weighed down, and rattles along so entertainingly is to the writer’s credit. It also ends a bleak, doom-laden cliffhanger to lead us into the dramatic conclusion.
And John Dorney’s Day of the Master is certainly dramatic. It’s a sweeping, cataclysmic Multi-Master epic which sees the Doctor, Liv and Helen each paired with a different incarnation as they race against time to defeat the Eleven and the Ravenous. These pairings are the real joy of the story and unsurprisingly, for two actors who’ve played father and daughter for years on TV, Derek Jacobi and Nicola Walker are the richest partnership. There’s a great back and forth between them, with some corking lines written by Dorney, who builds on Liv’s brutal pragmatism in a way that makes you wonder who’s really in danger.
Once the Masters are united in the second part, Dorney’s clearly having a lot of fun writing their interactions with each other. Unfortunately, some of that material is undone by the fact that the actors don’t seem to be in the same recording studio. Michelle Gomez is oddly underpowered, and her flirting with Eric Roberts (right?!) all feels rather flat compared to the crackling chemistry she had on-screen with John Simm. It’s a minor quibble because the Masters and the ambiguity over their ultimate goal is the strongest element and main attraction of the boxed set.
Which, by way of comparison, leads us to the weakest element; the Ravenous themselves. It’s always dangerous in Doctor Who to introduce creatures so terrifying that they strike fear into the hearts of the Timelords. Image of the Fendahl did a similar thing, and the main takeaway from that was that the ancient Gallifreyans may have a touch of castration anxiety. Ravenous makes the same mistake, beings that consume regeneration energy that look a little bit like clowns merely translate to audio as a rasping, creepy voice.
It speaks to a larger issue with the current Eighth Doctor ranges, since Dark Eyes, we’ve had him and his companions contend with all manner of Timelord threats. Meanwhile, his future self is mired in the Time War. As enjoyable as a lot of these stories have been, and as brilliant as the core cast are, I do long for a return to more standalone adventures.
Ravenous attempted to juggle this with the larger arc, giving us the instant classic Fairytale of Salzberg and the entertaining Kandyman comeback Sweet Salvation. And yet, some of the other stories felt like filler before the key arc moments, an arc which was flimsy and drawn out. It’s obviously a tricky balance to maintain, and Ravenous 4 is a far more exciting conclusion than the story deserved. I’m just left hoping that wherever the Doctor, Liv and Helen go next is free from Timelord influence.
Ravenous 4 is out now and available to buy on CD and digital download here.
Hey, Who fans!
Gamers will be happy to know another Doctor Who VR game is on the way – The Edge of Time is out on the usual VR platforms on the 12th November.
Review story this week is SJA: The Wedding of Sarah Jane Smith
Listeners will know we’ve loved reviewing the SJA so far and this is one story we’ve been looking forward to. Does the inclusion of the 10th Doctor bring this show up to an even higher standard or is it just hype?
Thank you all for listening this week. Our review story next week will be the 3rd Doctor story – The Ambassadors of Death. Until then have a super week and remember – Allons-y!
Hey, Who fans!
We say Happy Birthday to Doctor Who Magazine who is still going strong after 40 years and sadly we say goodbye to Stephen Moore (coincidentally Stephen played “Eldane” in our review story this week) who passed recently.
Another unofficial Doctor Who Annual is on its way. After the success of the 1972 Annual, this fan project from Terraqueous Distributors is now working on the 1987 Sixth Doctor release – details here. A new Doctor Who retailer is about to launch here in the UK! Yes, new Who-specific company “The Time Meddlers” launches on November 5th with their website and site located in central London’s Convent Garden Jubilee Market. Sign up here for an exclusive pre-launch discount of 25%. Exciting times for Who merch hunters.
Review story this week is The Hungry Earth and Cold Blood
We haven’t spent any time with the Eleventh Doctor nor Series 5 in a while so does this story bring back good memories or are we pulled under the ground in nostalgic disappointment?
Thank you all for listening this week. Our review story next week will be SJA: The Wedding of Sarah Jane Smith. Until then have a great week and remember – Allons-y!
Hot off the heels of Dead Media’s release, literally a couple of days afterwards, Big Finish went ahead and tackled The Second Oldest Question. We already know the answer to the first question, the oldest question in the universe but what about the second and what does it have to do with a chicken?
One glance at the cover for The Second Oldest Question will tell you everything you need to know but that doesn’t mean that you should skip this release as Carrie Thompson has crafted a very enjoyable little story here.
Arriving in Medieval England, the Doctor and Nyssa find themselves in a town that has just suffered a devastating fire and the villagers suspect a chicken of causing it to happen. The chicken has taken to the stand and when the Doctor goes to the chicken’s defence, he finds himself uncovering a rather strange conspiracy.
If all that sounds off, that is because it is an odd little story, but packed with plenty of heart and moments to enjoy and Thompson has given us the kind of crazy storyline that only Doctor Who can deliver! Thompson gives us the story through the eyes of Nyssa, played by Sarah Sutton who also works as the narrator for this story, who watches on as the Doctor defends his new friend against a crime that he couldn’t have possibly committed.
Thompson has the characters down perfectly and it’s easy to fit this story early into the Fifth Doctor and Nyssa’s solo adventures between Time-Flight and Arc of Infinity. Thompson gets the characters right and you can clearly see that these are the Fifth Doctor and Nyssa, even if the story does feel like it could fit any TARDIS team into it.
For her part, Sarah Sutton does a brilliant job as always and brings the story to life with expertise and ease. She voices the other characters with enough difference to be able to tell them apart and her approach to the Fifth Doctor has the same calm approach that Davison handled the role with.
Overall, The Second Oldest Question is another successful release for the Short Trips audio range and another welcome addition to the Fifth Doctor’s era. The Fifth Doctor is my favourite Doctor so any audio from his era is going to be a success with me but this is a particularly enjoyable way to spend a half-hour. And isn’t that what we all want from a Short Trip?
Hey, Who fans!
Still very quiet for news, nothing of note to report on.
Written by Noel Clarke, this story throws Owen into an undercover role which reveals a violent underworld involving Weevles and Gwen tumbles deeper down the path of regret. All deep dark stuff but does it serve up that TW grit?
Thank you all so much for listening this week. Our review story next week will be the 11th Doctor two-parter: The Hungry Earth and Cold Blood. Until then have a great week and remember – Allons-y!
Set a little while before the Twelfth Doctor met Bill Potts in Series 10, Dead Media gives us a rather strange entry into the Doctor’s mysterious time as a lecturer at St. Luke’s University.
Each release in the Short Trips range comes with its own narrator and this time, that role has been given to the young Jacob Dudman, a very good impressionist, who so far has made his name in the Doctor Who circles for his impressive takes on both David Tennant and Matt Smith. If you haven’t already check out the collaboration video he did with fellow impressionist, Jon Culshaw called The Curator, set during The Day of the Doctor, it’s great.
Here though, he gets to sink his teeth into the role of the Twelfth Doctor, played by Peter Capaldi. And boy does he do it justice. Now, his impersonation might not be spot-on but Capaldi has a very hard voice to imitate and he is a lot older than Dudman so that must make it harder to emulate. And Capaldi stands as one of my favourite Doctor’s and certainly my favourite incarnation of the character to come out of the modern era, so I won’t be entirely happy until he turns up again and performs the role himself, maybe with a boxset with Bill, Nardole and Missy? Pretty please Big Finish?
But Dudman does a great job with the material and he captures the way that Capaldi performed the role brilliantly. All the little quirks and tweaks he did with his voice is here as well as the disdainful way the Twelfth Doctor would deal with situations. It was great to hear and I’m looking forward to seeing what Dudman can do with the upcoming Twelfth Doctor Chronicles, coming out in February 2020.
As a narrator, Dudman also does a great job bringing the story to life, barely pausing for breath. In fact, he keeps the story rattling along at a great pace.
In many ways, Dead Media is in the same experimental vein as a lot of early Big Finish releases. Some of them, like Whispers of Terror and Creatures of Beauty amongst many others, went to great pains to explore the audio format and tried to find new ways to tell a story. Author John Richards has set the story in a podcast, which the Twelfth Doctor is hosting, much to his disdain. But Richards makes sure we know the Doctor actually has a good time getting to try this out, even if the story itself is surprisingly sad by the end and hits you really hard when you realise how invested you’d become in these characters.
Richards also draws some interesting parallels between the Third Doctor’s exile and the Twelfth Doctor’s choice to stay in one place at one time. I think that was perhaps one of Series 10’s biggest successes was that it wasn’t the Doctor flying off around in space for big intergalactic battles a lot of the time, but it actually brought the action back to Earth and closer to home and that was a formula that had worked in the show’s favour in the past. Richards also gives us some nice continuity references from both the classic and modern eras of the show, my favourite being the mention of Ace and the Cybermen in Silver Nemesis.
Overall Dead Media does brilliant justice to the Twelfth Doctor and gives us another enjoyable outing for this incarnation. The script from John Richards is excellent and the story is helped along wonderfully by director Nicholas Briggs who makes sure to keep things on track. And Jacob Dudman is just brilliant, bringing the Twelfth Doctor’s spirit and energy alive like it was on the television series. He should be very proud of himself. Dead Media is certainly one to check out!
It’s the end. But the moment has been prepared for. Sort of. Harry Houdini’s War brings to an end the recent Sixth Doctor and Peri trilogy to a close and while we’re getting a boxset with this duo next year, Harry Houdini’s War feels like a conclusion of their story altogether. A bit more of that as we go on.
I wasn’t too sure what to make of this story when Big Finish announced it. It certainly has a strange title, playing on the 1980s Target book, Harry Sullivan’s War. But thanks to the stunning cover from Lee Johnson, I decided to pick it up and boy am I glad that I did!
Another factor that played heavily into me picking this audio up was that it was written by Steve Lyons, someone whose writing I really enjoy, I have yet to meet a story from him that I don’t like, in fact, Son of the Dragon is one of my favourite Doctor Who adventures all-together and this story will probably be up there too. Lyons usually does a time-travel story of some sorts and while this story is set in America and Germany in WW1, there aren’t any timey-whimy elements to be seen at all. Instead what we get is a fun run-around with plenty of action, mystery and aerial-battles.
For someone we’ve heard the Doctor mention having met lots of times before, it’s surprising that no-one has ever brought Houdini into a story like this before. I think there was another Lyon’s script from The Destiny of the Doctor range a few years back but this is my first real encounter with the great escape artiste. And Lyon’s doesn’t shy away from the fact that the Doctor has met Houdini before. Indeed a lot of their great dialogue from the first episode comes from the fact that Houdini is trying to work out if this is his old-friend or not because he’s changed his face yet again.
Playing Harry Houdini is John Schwab and it is clear how much fun he is having here. His performance makes this story feel like a lost-television adventure, so clear does he make things. He has great chemistry with the entire cast and his performance is almost in the same vein as John Barrowman’s as Captain Jack. He is naughty and cheeky but serious at the same time. He doesn’t like what his home-country has done and he is trying to distance himself from it while they are trying to drag him kicking and screaming back into the fold. It’s a great place for a character to be and leads to a number of serious moments that Schwab plays to perfection. I felt quite sad at the end that he doesn’t leave with the Doctor at the end so that they can get a trilogy of future adventures!
What also feels different is that this isn’t a story told in the same vein as other Sixth Doctor stories. Actually, this one feels a lot more like a Seventh Doctor adventure with the Sixth Doctor getting to be the manipulative one and playing his cards close to his chest. You genuinely don’t know where this tale is going to go the whole way through the runtime and that was a great feeling.
The main cast is also excellent with Colin Baker proving once again why he is such a great incarnation of the Doctor. I liked his manipulative side getting to be front and centre here and again, for the first time in a long time, you genuinely didn’t know what he was going to do next. Baker clearly enjoyed that dynamic too as well as the script because he sounds like he is having a blast here.
Nicola Bryant is still great as Peri too. But is she really Peri here? Well, you’ll have to listen to the story to find out because it was a great twist and secondary mystery that unfolds as the story rattles towards its conclusion. Peri has always been one of my favourite companions and this story proves yet again why she is so great. She’s funny and sarcastic but clearly enjoys her travels with the Doctor and she shares a great dynamic with Houdini, especially when they find themselves trapped in a WW1 plane together with no other option but to fly. It’s great stuff that is played superbly by Bryant. I can’t wait to hear Blood on Santa’s Claws at the end of the year!
Rounding out the cast are Fiona Bruce, Mark Elstob and Glen McCready as Helen, Oberst Brandt and Professor Winter respectively. All of whom manage to add plenty of humanity to their characters be it as goodies or baddies and it really added to the story, with their going the extra mile helping to elevate the script to even higher heights.
Ken Bentley knows how to get the best of his casts and one of the best directors at Big Finish and here he delivers another cracking adventure with some terrific sound design from Joe Meiners, that really keeps the listener engaged throughout.
As you might have guessed, I really enjoyed Harry Houdini’s War and its a nice oddity. Steve Lyons always delivers the goods with his work at Big Finish and this is another hit and certainly one of my favourite releases from them this year. But on a more emotional note, it is a story that sees the Doctor say goodbye to Peri in a way that sets this story apart from the trilogy it is part of. To say any more would spoil this experience but you should definitely check this story out, I’ve a feeling it might just be one of the strongest Sixth Doctor stories told of all time.
Hey, Who fans!
It is sooo good to be back and chatting Doctor Who. Let’s get into it…
Chris Eccleston seems to be embracing fandom recently and another example of that is the announcement that he’ll be attending the Gallifrey One convention next February. Nice one Chris.
Fan of Martha Jones? If so then you’ll be pleased to know Freema Agyeman is returning to the world of Doctor Who to star alongside Eve Myles in Big Finish’s “Torchwood: Dissected” which is out in February 2020 and if you’re in need of a new laptop bag, Lovarzi has you covered with their new TARDIS themed offering.
Review story this week: Arc of Infinity
Back to Gallifrey, the Time Lord High Council, traitors, Omega, posh British accents and Peter Davison doubling as the bad guy. How do we feel about this often snubbed story?
Thank you all so much for coming back and listening. Our review story next week will be Torchwood: Combat. Until then have a great week and remember – Allons-y!
So far I’ve really enjoyed reading these books from Virgin. They prove to be an interesting experiment with the Doctor Who mythos and offer a different and intriguing look at how the show might have changed as it headed into the 1990s onscreen. But the prose format allowed for a little more experimentation, more explicit adult themes and situations and much more character development, all of which we get with these two next novels, Witch Mark and Nightshade.
CAT’S CRADLE: WITCH MARK: WRITTEN BY ANDREW HUNT
As a fan of the horror genre in movies and television and someone who has a great deal of interesting in the paranormal in real life, I’ve always had something of a love/hate relationship when it comes to Doctor Who doing the supernatural. Sometimes we great stories like The Daemons,Static, Fear of the Dark or The Spectre of Lanyon Moor. Other-times, we end up with monitories in themselves like Night Terrors, Minuet in Hell, Hide and The Shakespeare Code (I don’t like it, I’m sorry). But very rarely do we get stories that fall in the middle of those, Vampiresof Venice is one and Witch Mark is another that I didn’t hate, but I certainly didn’t enjoy. And it isn’t that it is a bad story with this one, the dialogue is clunky and there are some strange moments with plot threads that never get resolved. We’ve got demonic versions of the Doctor and Ace who just vanish and apparently turn up later in a future book but it is a moment that takes you out of the story nevertheless.
The prose is strange two with two disjointed storylines making for a confusing read, with one strand set in a Welsh village and the other in a strange fantasy land called “Tir na n-Og”. The storyline in Wales is played out like a high-stakes detective novel with no high-stakes while the fantasy plot seems to be something from a youngsters quest in a game of Dungeons & Dragons.
However, having said that, it is quite a clever story with the usual way Doctor Who has in dealing with the supernatural and giving it all a scientific explanation, although far too late into the proceedings. Which is a shame because sometimes one wants their werewolves to be werewolves and their unicorns to be just unicorns!
We also get another brilliant alien here with a non-human perspective on everything. The Virgin New Adventures seems to be really good at giving us aliens like that and Hunt gives us some great sympathetic characters both human and otherwise. He also seems to have a good handle on the Doctor who isn’t cruel or manipulative or cold and depressed which is the impression most writers for these books seemed to have. Sure he has his moments but here feels more like the fun-loving Seventh Doctor from his first series.
Hunt doesn’t have however a good handle on Ace as she feels more like the version of the character we saw on television. Don’t get me wrong, Ace is one of my favourite companions but these books had gone to a great length to give her more development beyond someone who just likes to blow things up. It might have gone a little more unnoticed if the previous book hadn’t had her running around hiring mercenaries, travelling internationally and breaking and entering so her change in character here is almost disappointing.
We also get some nice characters in the form of Hugh and Janet, two characters we met in Delta and the Bannermen as much of this story takes place around the same area. I’ve always had a soft spot for that story so it was nice, at least to me, to return to the same location (ish) and met up with some of the same characters. I certainly found the best part of the book to be those passages and chapters set in Wales as the fantasy plot could sometimes feel like a bad-crossover between Conan the Barbarian and Dungeons &Dragons, with the massacre, pillaging, nudity and sexual dialogue that comes with both those things. Plus I’ve never really enjoyed that type of fantasy, Dark Crystal, Labyrinth and Lord of the Rings have never interested me so those elements of this book were always going to be a hard sell to me.
And it also pretty hard to class Cat’s Cradle as a proper trilogy. Timewyrm had four stories that were clearly linked together whereas these books, though there are few elements that hold them together, are largely stand-alone reads. And while the problems with the TARDIS, that were a major link between these three books, is finally fixed at the end, it feels even more tacked on, especially as it ends with the question as to whether those problems have actually been solved.
Witch Mark will never be one of the best novels to come out of this range. But isn’t the worst one, so far that position is held for the ironically titled, The Pit, in a few novels time, and I think that Witch Mark has something of an unfair reputation. With some shaky plot and dialogue, what the story makes up for that with is a lot of character work and an interesting if, the slightly underdeveloped main plot. As I said above, Witch Mark falls somewhere in the middle of the DoctorWho-supernatural stories but as it turns out, that isn’t actually a bad place to be.
NIGHTSHADE: WRITTEN BY MARK GATISS
Nightshade is the first book of the range which isn’t part of an overarching story-arc and because of that, it allows Mark Gatiss a lot of creative freedom. No longer constrained by a long plot, Nightshade sees a particularly moody Seventh Doctor contemplating retirement but its a pretty selfish move for him as he also has Ace to consider and he considers returning to Gallifrey.
For much of the book, the Doctor is trying to avoid events that are unfolding around him. But gradually, he finds himself forced to partake in the events happening around him, lead on by Ace, who practically forces him to investigate the nearby radio satellite station. It is an interesting dynamic to the Doctor, rarely have we seen him this sullen and grumpy, perhaps the last time was at the end of The Massacre of St. Bartholomew’s Eve, when the First Doctor contemplates going back to Gallifrey, failing to save the young Chaplet girl and Steven threatening to leave the TARDIS at the next opportunity. But it is also a character trait that gets tiresome very quickly. The Seventh Doctor is at his most interesting when he is being manipulative and quirky. Not when he is as miserable as this and it’s a welcome relief when he gets more involved in the plot later on.
Instead, Gatiss places a lot of the plot onto the shoulders of Ace, who also goes through a character transformation here. The previous novels went to great lengths to give her more character and show us some of the defining moments of her childhood and life on Earth prior to meeting the Doctor. It isn’t long though before she begins to change her mind about staying on Earth in this time period with the Doctor as she soon falls for a young man called Robin, in many ways the complete opposite to Ace. Ace was always ready for a fight, happy to defend her friends and herself and threw herself into her adventures. Robin is quiet, timid and almost afraid to fight, not bad things to be but not necessarily a match for a personality like Ace’s. Nevertheless they hit it off pretty quickly and for a while, Gatiss seems to let it play out like Ace is going to leave at the end of the book, having fallen in love, like a few of the Doctor’s previous companions had done, perhaps most notably Jo Grant at the end of The Green Death.
But the Seventh Doctor’s manipulations aren’t done yet and while he verbally agrees for her leave, he still spirits her away in the TARDIS at the end of the book, forcing Ace and Robin apart. Gatiss does tantalisingly leave this ambiguous as to whether the Doctor meant to or not. I’ve always read into that the Doctor didn’t want to be without Ace and couldn’t bring himself to say goodbye to another companion. While I’ve got a nice outlook on the act, Ace sees things differently and the following novel, Love and War would see her bow out at the end.
Nightshade is almost quieter in its storytelling. It’s a prospective look back as well as a look ahead. We’ve got a prologue that opens on the First Doctor leaving Gallifrey. It’s never mentioned that its the Doctor but its heavy context is obvious, though it differs from the events we could read about later in Lungbarrow and then see onscreen in The Name of the Doctor. We’ve also got a new console room, as well as the foreshadowing of a new companion in the form of Bernice Summerfield in the next book.
Susan also features quite heavily here as the Doctor’s memories of his granddaughter form a lot of the backbone of the story, even leading to a confrontation of sorts between the Seventh Doctor and Susan towards the end of the book. Ace is also plagued by things from her past as she is forced to face the memories of her mother. It gradually becomes enjoyably clear that memories and we choose to look back on things is the main narrative plot throughout this book.
Gatiss also introduces us to Professor Nightshade himself, or the actor who played him, Edmund Trevithick. Nightshade is a meta-Doctor Who, a fictional programme that also parodies Professor Quatermass of Hammer Horror fame. The monsters of this book are the fictional aliens he had to fight are adapted into real by the true villain, the disembodied entity, The Sentience. What is really fun is to see how much fun Edmund is having getting to relive his old adventures in his old age and he sees it almost as the BBC remaking his old television series. Of course, his enjoyment of the events quickly dispels when he has to face his old enemies again in the third act of the book. But it is impossible not to like Edmund and his spiky, energetic and quick mind and the cover of the book puts us in mind of Peter Cushing, the Movie-Doctor of the 1960s, the resemblance between Edmund and Cushing is uncanny on the cover.
Gatiss doesn’t hold back on killing the characters in this book, though surprisingly this isn’t the book with the most deaths. The town of Crook Marsham had a population of a few hundred at the beginning of the book, by the end, they are down to sixty-five. Unlike some books, this one doesn’t gloss over that fact either. But had the Doctor not gotten involved, it might have been another world-wide disaster.
Overall though, Nightshade has a feeling of nostalgia surrounding the whole piece. No doubt this is purposely down to Gatiss but knowing this is almost the end of the line for the Doctor and Ace dynamic we all know and love gives the book some melancholy undertones. Reading this book, you’ll be happy and sad at the same time. But it also feels like the series is finally moving out from under the shadow of its television persona and moving in a brand new direction. Everything changes in the next book and this is a great way to usher out the old way of Doctor Who storytelling. Bringing the adventure back to Earth and giving the Doctor and Ace one final monster to face before they went their separate ways. This was the first of the VNA’s that I couldn’t put down and its well worth a read if you can find it for a decent price online.
NEXT TIME: EXIT ACE AND ENTER BERNICE SUMMERFIELD AND SAY HELLO TO THE FIRST BOOK TO DROP THE NOTORIOUS ‘F’-BOMB…