Episode notes

Red Planets kicks off what seems to be a Seventh Doctor end of the year for Big Finish. Not only is he getting a series of adventures with Ace, Mel, Hex, Klein, Iris Wildthyme and Panda, he is also getting another boxset featuring the return of Chris and Roz! For us fans of the Seventh Doctor, it is going to be a real treat!

Perhaps of all the Doctors in Big Finish’s catalogue, it is the Seventh Doctor who is most used to alternate realities it is the Seventh, particularly with the problems caused in Colditz and Elizabeth Klein.

Una McCormack has decided to go back and revisit the idea of alternate timelines with Red Planets, a story in which Mel and the Doctor are trying to explore the strange new Republic of Mokoshia and where Ace tries to help a wounded man get over the Berlin wall with documents which will help stop an all-out war.

London, 2017. Except… it isn’t. Berlin, 1961. But it isn’t that either. Not really. Not in the timeline the Doctor knows. Something is very wrong. While Ace tries to save the life of a wounded British spy, Mel and the Doctor must get to grips with the modern day socialist Republic of Mokoshia. For Mel it feels strangely familiar and ‘right’, which makes the Doctor feel even more uneasy.

Soon, a message from a dark and blood-soaked distant future is on its way… But the Doctor will have to act fast to stop this timeline becoming reality.

And with Ace stranded in an alternate 1961, will saving the Earth end her existence?

The cover for Red Planets by Una McCormack
The cover for Red Planets by Una McCormack

The first thing that will strike you about Red Planets is that it works brilliantly as a gritty thriller. Perhaps it might have been on television as a black and white-noir serial with imaginative camera angles, the sort of thing that The Happiness Patrol was supposed to be. At first, the new society that the Doctor and Mel find themselves in doesn’t seem all that bad. There is peace, happiness and prosperity for all. There is even a space programme up and running with the first rocket of astronauts about to reach Mars.

As the characters begin to scratch beneath the surface, however, we see that communism has spread throughout Europe and anything but compliance will have fatal consequences, something the Doctor knows about when he vocally makes his knowledge and disapproval known.

A great way McCormack makes this story different to all the other alternate universe stories is that Mel seems to remember this wrong version of history. To her, this is the way the world has always been. She amps things up with the fact that the Doctor and his companions are separated and with the way that Mel quickly accepts the curfew and the fact that Queen abdicated in 1966 only adds to the overall sense of unease.

McCormack pens what will probably be the tensest opening two episodes in Big Finish history. She introduces Colonel Marsden, someone who you don’t know where he stands and who is all too easily ready to accept the Doctor, thanks to some stolen, what we assume, UNIT files. We quickly learn that knowledge of the Doctor goes much higher and the Doctor soon has to deal with some shady individuals.

Elliot Levey gives a particularly strong and enjoyable performance as Marsden, a character who quickly shows his true colours. McCormack writes his character brilliantly and his conclusion is really shocking.

Sophie Aldred, Sylvester McCoy and Bonnie Langford enjoy the recording for Red Planets
Sophie Aldred, Sylvester McCoy and Bonnie Langford enjoy the recording for Red Planets

Looking past the future events, let’s turn to the past with Ace stranded in 1961 trying to keep things on track. It is her story that held the most interest for me, feeling a lot more fleshed out than those segments in 2017 and that is only right given how her actions will interact with the future. For all intents and purposes, this is a story where Ace gets to be the Doctor, she even gains her own companion in the form of Tom, a man wounded trying to climb over the Berlin Wall. It is his story that we follow, even if we don’t know it, to begin with.

Tom is played excellently by Matt Barber. He brings a real sense of how uneasy this time and place was back in 1961. In the real world, the brink of another war seemed imminent. With the Cuban missile crisis and America’s fears of the Cold War, things seemed very desperate indeed. Barber brings out excellent, that feeling that enemies were everywhere, allowing his scenes to be some of the tensest listens I’ve ever had!

The main cast is on top form too. Sylvester McCoy is always excellent as the Doctor, Big Finish has really allowed his incarnation to shine. He always had a handle on the darker elements of this character and once again, he allows them to shine here. Bonnie Langford is another Big Finish miracle. Even though she doesn’t get that much to do here, she is a large part of the story and is far removed from the screamer we got on television. I always look forward to a Mel story from these music masters and Red Planets is no different.

Sophie Aldred is always excellent too and that doesn’t change here. She is brilliant and her scenes with Matt Barber are aided by the chemistry the pair had. I am looking forward to her being in the remaining three of four 7th Doctor main range audios. And I can’t wait to hear her in the upcoming Class Audio Series!

Una McCormack is a writer I would love to hear more from in Big Finish. She had such an excellent handle on all the characters here and I would love her to tackle a different TARDIS team! She takes the aged topic of alternate timelines and made it feel brand new again. Red Planets will stand as one of the best releases of this year!

Overall, this is a thrilling opening to the multitude of Sylvester McCoy audios we are being treated to this year!

Synopsis

London, 2017. Except… it isn’t. Berlin, 1961. But it isn’t that either. Not really. Not in the timeline the Doctor knows. Something is very wrong.

While Ace tries to save the life of a wounded British spy, Mel and the Doctor must get to grips with the modern day socialist Republic of Mokoshia. For Mel it feels strangely familiar and ‘right’, which makes the Doctor feel even more uneasy.

Soon, a message from a dark and blood-soaked distant future is on its way… But the Doctor will have to act fast to stop this timeline becoming reality.

And with Ace stranded in an alternate 1961, will saving the Earth end her existence?

Written By: Una McCormack
Directed By: Jamie Anderson

Cast

Sylvester McCoy (The Doctor), Sophie Aldred (Ace), Bonnie Langford (Mel), Matt Barber (Tom Elliot), Elliot Levey (Colonel Marsden), Genevieve Gaunt (Anna / Commander of Phobos Mission), Max Bollinger (Sokolov), Chris Dale (Mission Control / Voice of Map / George / Television Announcer). Other parts played by members of the cast.

Producer: Nicholas Briggs
Script Editor: Guy Adams
Executive Producers: Jason Haigh-Ellery and Nicholas Briggs

Jordan Shortman

Jordan has loved Doctor Who for as long as he can remember and television in general. Many people blame his old teacher for what they believe his is obsession, he doesn't care though, his head is off in time and space most of the time.

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