Mark Donaldson continues his three-part review of Ravenous 2, Big Finish’s latest 8th Doctor boxed set. This time focusing on the middle story, the two-part Christmassy tale Better Watch Out/Fairytale of Salzburg written by John Dorney.
Among many things, the Eighth Doctor is the star of Doctor Who‘s best ever Christmas special, Robert Shearman’s wintery ghost story The Chimes of Midnight. Over a decade later, he does it all over again in a two-part dark Christmas fairy tale told to us through narration by both the Doctor and the mysterious Apostle (played so affectingly by Sian Phillips).
The Doctor, Liv and Helen visit Salzburg for the annual Krampusnacht celebrations where they come face to face with a fairy tale monster that’s very much real. Dorney was inspired to write this two-parter after a family holiday and his clear warmth and nostalgia for both the location and the season emanate from every level of the production. The sound design is a particular strength, transporting the listener from an uncharacteristically warm October afternoon to a bustling Christmas market, complete with the sound of carol singers, distant church bells and snow crunching underfoot. Whilst a few clues indicate that this is indeed modern Salzburg, there is a timelessness to the setting which reflects the unique charm of that period in December where real life puts itself on pause. It also evokes the feeling of stepping into one of those Christmas markets, a mass of old-fashioned chalets selling handmade goods in the heart of a bustling modern city. It doesn’t matter if the Doctor and his friends are paying with Euros or Kroener, Christmas is Christmas.
On the subject of the Doctor and his friends, Better Watch Out‘s opening scenes feel like the first time this particular TARDIS team are having fun together. After all, the universe-shattering events of Dark Eyes and Doom Coalition never left much time for holidays or laughter. Paul McGann, in particular, appears to be relishing the chance to play a much lighter, less damaged version of his Doctor after such a gruelling few years following the loss of Lucie Miller. A speech about his love of snow and a bit of comedy business involving sausages show that sometimes, just sometimes, it’s still a lot of fun to travel with the 8th Doctor, even if an ominous pre-titles sequence informs us that the giggling about sausages will be short-lived, the wurst is yet to come.
When it does come, via some expertly built tension flitting between each of our three leads as it slowly dawns on them what’s happening, the sound design shifts gears to present us with a terrifying hellscape designed to punish all of Salzburg’s bad boys and girls, leading to one of Doctor Who‘s bleakest cliffhangers. It’s difficult to imagine prime-time BBC1 signing off on something so dark outside of the EastEnders Christmas special.
When the story picks up again in Fairytale of Salzburg, it’s up to Helen and Liv to save the Doctor and Salzburg from the terrifying Krampus which, in true Doctor Who style, involves a bit of a car chase, a bit of a runaround and some incredibly clever plotting that it would be churlish to spoil here.
What Fairytale of Salzburg does, therefore, is allow Hattie Morahan as Helen Sinclair her defining companion moment. She’s been through the wringer a little bit in recent times, but here she gets to be the hero and proves herself to be the sort of resourceful and intelligent companion that the Doctor treasures so dearly. Which is not to say that Nicola Walker and Paul McGann are left high and dry, Walker gets an absolutely heartbreaking scene towards the end which allows her to display such a palpable degree of anger, heartbreak and love. McGann, whilst mostly absent, is terrific as a different type of Doctor, the omniscient narrator of people’s futures of whom we saw flashes in the original TV movie.
Indeed, narration and storytelling are very much at the heart of this two-parter, and the power of a good yarn may be both the cause of and solution to such catastrophic Christmas events. What’s more, there’s an exhaustive checklist of references to other famous Christmas stories that never feels forced (and when it does, it’s very much the point) and adds further layers to the story. To say more would be to ruin what is a seasonal tour de force by John Dorney, which is at turns creepy, breathlessly exciting, heartbreakingly sad, humane, tender but above all, evocatively festive. Not only that, but it has an excellent monster, realised beautifully on the cover artwork by Tom Webster and in the audio itself by an uncredited actor who imbues the creature with a great deal of devilish charm and boo-hiss villainy. Everything you could want from a Doctor Who Christmas special, then.
NEXT TIME: We’ve had Christmas, so in true wibbly wobbly style, let’s do Halloween next as the Doctor and the Eleven face their greatest fears onboard a haunted TARDIS…
Written By: Matt Fitton, John Dorney, Guy Adams
Directed By: Ken Bentley
Cast: Paul McGann (The Doctor), Nicola Walker (Liv Chenka), Hattie Morahan (Helen Sinclair), Jamie Newall (Shafranek), Carla Mendonça (Waltraud Raither / Imp 1), Kate Rawson (Inge / Imp 2), Ewan Goddard (Christophe / Krampus Runner), Robert Whitelock (Bruno / Vagabond / Priest), Siân Phillips (Pilgrim), Raad Rawi(Bishop) Kate Duchêne (Antonia Werner), Susan Hingley (Maria Werner). Other parts played by members of the cast.
Producer David Richardson
Script Editor Ken Bentley
Executive Producers Jason Haigh-Ellery and Nicholas Briggs