It’s something of an 8th Doctor heavy year for Big Finish as they celebrate their 20th anniversary of producing original Doctor Who audios. Alongside the ongoing Ravenous and Time War arcs, we have a brand new series of adventures for him and beloved companion Lucie Miller (Sheridan Smith) and he’ll make an appearance in an upcoming War Master boxed set. He will also have his own role to play in the hugely ambitious crossover Legacy of Time in which he’ll team up with Professors Song and Summerfield.
And quite right too.
Arguably, we wouldn’t have had 20 years of Big Finish without Paul McGann’s Doctor. It was the prospect of new adventures for a new Doctor that first attracted me to Big Finish as I followed the adventures of him and Charley from the R101 airship to the Divergent universe and beyond. There was a blank page for this particular era which allowed Big Finish’s writers to the types of original, inventive Doctor Who stories that really made their name. How lovely it is then to have John Dorney’s Companion Piece, the second story in the Ravenous 3 boxed set which is as heartfelt and thrilling and funny a tribute to the 8th Doctor era as you could ask for.
In true Doctor Who style, Companion Piece begins right at the end of a previous series of boxed sets whilst simultaneously taking place a third of a way through the following one. Thankfully, that’s nowhere near as confusing as it sounds. The Nine, one of the villainous Eleven’s previous selves has captured one of the Doctor’s friends and, due to a mixture of kleptomania and obsession is determined to capture them all. And so it is that we have the Doctor’s current companions Liv and Helen locked in a cell with his first companion Charlotte Pollard and future companion Bliss. The four women have to learn to work together, with some remote support from River Song, to defeat the Nine and return everyone to their correct time zones.
Essentially, Companion Piece is a multi-companion story, and much like multi-Doctor stories a lot of the joy is in how these characters interact with each other. There’s mutual respect between Liv, Helen and Charley whilst a seemingly out of her depth Bliss has a brittle, bickering rapport with Liv. Nicola Walker and Rakhee Thakrar have great chemistry together which ensures that these scenes sparkle. It helps too that John Dorney has crafted a script full of memorable one-liners (“Not without a shovel” is a killer), knowing references to arguments over which companions are canonical and, because River’s involved, some delightfully suggestive situations that may stay in your mind’s eye for quite some time.
This is a deceptively simple, breathlessly paced jailbreak story that only ever pauses to make wisecracks about the obsessiveness of collector culture or the stringent rules fans apply to canon (“The penguin definitely counted”). As much as this is a tribute to the 8th Doctor era, it’s also a love letter to the role of the Doctor Who companion, it’s hopefully not considered a spoiler to say that this isn’t a story about the Doctor riding in at the last minute to rescue his friends. Companion Piece is about those brilliant friends doing it for themselves. It also manages to cue up a couple of upcoming Big Finish releases along the way, and slot in some crowd-pleasing cameos, none of which weigh down the action or will be spoiled here.
After the exposition and mythology-heavy Deeptime Frontier, this feels like a breath of fresh air, a story more in keeping with the original intention to give the Ravenous series a more standalone quality. So much so that after listening to it, I pondered why on Earth it had been included at this juncture, but it soon dawned on me that, given the decision the Doctor makes at the end, it’s a good idea to restate just what qualities constitute a Doctor Who companion. For whilst Liv and Helen were escaping the Nine’s prison, the Doctor has welcomed someone else on board and he’s going to need all the friends he can get…