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Big Finish Doctor Who Review: 268 The Flying Dutchman / Displaced

Released as part of the Monthly Adventures from Big Finish these two adventures on one release feature the 7th Doctor, Ace and Hex. The 7th Doctor, Ace and Hex ended their regular travels together in 2014 when Hex departed in Signs and Wonders. But time travel is a wonderful thing and Big Finish have brought this popular trio back together for two more adventures set in the early days of their travels together.

Big Finish The Flying Dutchman and Displaced artwork

The Flying Dutchman by writer Gemma Arrowsmith

Ahoy, me hearties come aboard the trading ship Isabella for a cool little romp written by writer Gemma Arrowsmith who has several writing credits for Big Finish. This story actually feels like a breath of fresh air. In these uncertain times whereas a nation, a world, we are in essence constrained and following rules to survive we are taken to the year 1742 the open sea, which could be lawless and w.  There is a sense of freedom and adventure in being with this “fickle mistress” and it’s against this background where sailors would have fought the natural elements as listeners we are invited into. The Isabella encounters The Flying Dutchman, a legendary ghost ship and for anyone seeing the ship, it is taken as an omen of impending disaster.

The 18th century myth says the ship is never able to make port and so is doomed to sail the oceans forever. This story also explores the competitive and uneasy relationship between the Captain of the Isabella, Alexander Marfleet, and his Chief Mate Unsworth. One of the story themes is about being courageous and gaining the courage to be or become who you are or want to be. There is a fascinating battle between the two men as Unsworth instinctively behaves that he knows the sea better than the captain whilst Marfleet, new to the role, flounders with his instructions to the crew.

Unsworth admits he wants to be the Captain and should have been and there is the clear suggestion that Marfleet has only gained the captaincy because of his father.  Marfleet seems eager to kill the Tardis crew initially and there is a touch of the military a legacy of his father about him.  He grows as the story progresses, changes his reactions which meant I ultimately rather liked him.

The Flying Dutchman 1887, a painting by artist Albert Pinkham Ryder

Without giving away too much of the plot I enjoyed listening to the tension between the two men which comments on a suggested class divide which might apply today but also highlights the struggle between illogical conviction and rational thinking. The captain has inherited his father’s superstitious beliefs about evil spirits, dark magic and demons and Unsworth exploit this somewhat to show himself as the stronger, wiser or more reasonable almost heroic second in command. There something quite intriguing about exploring how the human mind tries to justify a mystery. Unsworth portrays himself as a neutralising balance as the ghosts become more menacing by initiating the instruction for the ghosts to retreat in front of the captain and suggesting an odd move to pray…

“Mark my words, this storm is a warning. A dark omen. Our journey is sure to be met with disaster ”

Captain Alexander Marfleet

It’s a well-used plot device that wherever the Doctor goes he’s not necessarily accepted to be a benign force and so it proves to be when the Tardis crew arrive abroad the ship Isabella. The ship’s crew are instantly suspicious of the strangers, hostile, bloodthirsty and as frequently occurs our Tardis crew are captured, escape and are captured again as they fail to return to the safety of the Tardis. The 7th Doctor is wonderfully portrayed by Sylvester McCoy. He just knows his character so well and he plays him with a curious air.  He’s one step ahead once he works out what’s going on and just prefers not to tell his companions. Ace thinks the explanation of the Flying Dutchmen is due to aliens and Hex thinks there are actually ghosts haunting the Isabella. I’m meeting all these new companions through Big Finish and it’s becoming fun seeing how they react with the Doctor and the television companions. Hex seems a little unsure of himself, of the Doctor and uncomfortable as the landlubber of the trio. But his scouse accent is very winning to my ears. He at one-point questions whether the Doctor is cynical but I believe he isn’t that, well not entirely.

Call it manipulation or testing their intelligence but the Doctor pits Ace and Hex against each other to investigate the goings-on. Sophie Aldred is excellent as always. If I close my eyes season 26 Ace is here thankfully not calling the Doctor “Professor”. She’s strong, a fighter, appropriate in this situation and develops a seemingly unlikely friend in-cabin boy Archie who she mentors and who plays a significant part in the solving of the mystery. Archie has a good heart but a secret of his own.

As a child, I was fascinated by stories of unusual phenomena and mysteries (Does anyone remember the marvellous ITV series Arthur C Clarke’s Mysterious World?  ) so knowing the premise of this story was a ghost ship was intriguing.   The action sequences of fighting, amongst the creaking strange noises of the Isabella, were really effectively portrayed for audio and I liked how the fear of the crew heightened the atmosphere of the story The musical score is by Howard Carter and was suitably eerie conjuring up the images of the sea and mysterious depths with an enjoyable cliff-hanger. I really did enjoy the whole mystery of the Flying Dutchmen and the ghostly apparitions.

Displaced by writer Katharine Armitage

Displaced is a little gem of a story, written by a newcomer to Big Finish, writer Katharine Armitage, that will resonant with me for a while. It is a deceptively simple premise as the Doctor, Hex and Ace arrive in an abandoned home, devoid of the occupants. I spoke about the feeling of freedom in the environment of the previous story but this story is the complete opposite as our team are locked in, by something or someone unable to leave. Its essentially a mystery box premise and the three of them have to explore, investigate to solve it to be able to leave.

The Doctor finds an abandoned cup of tea is still warm and the TV is playing which suggests the people were there moments ago but where are they? The quiet envelopes the house and it becomes eerie.  What transpires should be a genial place called home is missing the objects that give its life. The mystery grows slowly as the home automation system Harry bursts the silence where it develops a three-word riddle and ghostly voices start to haunt the house. My only criticism here would be it was quite difficult to understand the ghostly voices all the way through the story.

Displaced is set in an isolated area of the Fens
Displaced is set in an isolated area of the Fens

I’m not sure whether there is an ongoing issue throughout Hex’s journey in the Tardis due to a clash of personalities with the Doctor but Hex doesn’t like feeling controlled. A developing theme from the Flying Dutchman Hex is suspicious, quick to accuse the Doctor, which Ace then also follows to do, that the enigmatic goings-on in the house is one of his now-infamous tests. I have sensed that Hex dreads each situation they end up in, partly due to the heady abandon to alien danger the Doctor and Ace have developed. Thematically though I love the idea running through both stories that the 7th Doctor understands what’s going on but won’t explain straightaway to his companions. It adds an additional mysterious coat to his personality.

I really wish we could have seen more of this aspect in the TV series and if it hadn’t been rested I’m sure we would of. Sometimes the 7th Doctor does know what’s happening and sometimes he doesn’t but it serves to emphasise how set apart, as a Timelord, from his human companions he really is. The idea of a secretive, manipulative side is captivating however especially as its something that we probably haven’t seen since Pat Troughton’s incarnation ( remember the Doctor and Jamie in Evil of the Daleks anyone ?). I also adore that the 7th Doctor is multi-layered as when he doesn’t always know the answer, he can be so affably curious for knowledge. This is mainly due to Sylvester McCoy who imbues the warm lilt in his voice to genuinely make the 7th Doctor endearing at times and also allows him to convey heartfelt sorrow in the tone of his voice.

What’s also fascinating is being confined together does create a few cracks in Team Tardis highlighting a strained dynamic at times between the trio. The atmosphere of the house affects both Hex and Ace in different ways. Hex’s comfort zone as a staff nurse means he displays an emotional link to people so he has a natural empathy. He finds all the everyday reminders of daily family life touching and moving in a way that Ace doesn’t really normally notice. She calls what he does “proper caring”, As a new companion to me I really enjoyed Hex’s heartfelt observations. Ace seems more naturally riled which happens so quickly she reacts by shouting and fighting. She is swept up with a thirst for freedom and adventure much like the Doctor.

The frustrations of being trapped within the house create both a fight and flight reaction within her. They highlight her relative immaturity compared to Hex. Ace bickers with Hex at times much like a bossy younger sister so these are two people you wouldn’t think would have much in common but there are some deep undercurrents of emotions that surface between Hex and Ace that really were surprising, hinting at possible romantic feelings between them?  I’m so intrigued by this development and definitely want to know more now.

“Change One Curse ”

Harry

“Displaced” is set in an isolated spot, the natural area of the Fens and this marshy region which supports a rich ecology as well as the sea. It becomes important in understanding the history of the house as well as explaining what has occurred to the occupants. I really enjoyed the way the story was plotted as the landscape and the house with its long line of occupants all wove together symbiotically by the end. This is Doctor Who and so there is an alien in the story but also a human intervention in this story and I know which stunned me more.

There are dark twists that took my breath away. Everyone knows the classic line from Idris in “The Doctor Wife”  (inhabited by the Tardis). She told the Doctor she always took the Doctor where he needed to go.  Although the Doctor says the truth is important, and justice will be served the story cleverly uses all the emotional beats it creates to give the listener a conclusion that feels heart-breaking in its brutality that lingers in the memory.

7/10 Two very different feeling adventures that walk the plank of courage and sorrow for this popular trio.

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