In the month of Big Finish’s 20th anniversary, it’s interesting to note just how many outings there have been for the 8th Doctor this year. We’ve heard him team up with his nemesis, the Eleven to do battle with the Ravenous, spar with Derek Jacobi’s War Master, he’s about to team up with Professors Song and Summerfield and later this year he’ll meet the Valeyard on the battlefields of the Time War.
And quite right too, it’s no exaggeration to pinpoint the 8th Doctor range as the key to Big Finish’s success since 2001’s Storm Warning. Personally, I rather miss those earlier carefree days of the 8th Doctor, free from the shackles of on-screen continuity and Time War portent. Luckily, the other key to Big Finish’s success is their ability to tap into nostalgia for Classic Doctor Who in all its forms. So, imagine my delight when they announced four new adventures for Paul McGann’s Doctor and his beloved companion Lucie Miller, played by beloved national treasure Sheridan Smith.
Pleasingly, listening to these four stories is like stepping back in time to those halcyon days of 2007 where we had new Big Finish on the radio. Those original Lucie Miller stories were a clear attempt to better reflect the TV series. Shorter, snappier hour-long stories, a mixture of new and old monsters, history, the future, alien planets and planet Earth.
The Further Adventures of Lucie Miller, therefore, takes us from the centre of a black hole to a strange pagan community via a futuristic roller derby and a manor house on a meteor. The overall result is a whirlwind of a boxed set which is full of variety, re-energises Paul McGann’s 8th Doctor and places Lucie Miller front and centre of the action.
Nevermore so than in Nicholas Briggs’ The Dalek Trap which, after some clunky exposition to reintroduce the character and place these adventures within her established timeline, isn’t even about the Doctor and the Daleks. Stranded in the centre of a black hole with a catatonic Doctor and some oddly compliant Daleks, Lucie is forced to use her wits and her wit to cure the Doctor and rescue some stranded astronauts. This is a proper bleedin’ Lucie Miller story where following battles with Daleks and Cybermen she’s afforded the opportunity to display everything she’s learned as a companion thus far.
It’s a strong opener and the focus on Lucie rather than on yet another battle between the Doctor and the Daleks allows Briggs to write and perform some truly bizarre Dalek characters. It’s a story that, like many of the original run, could easily slot into televised Who, invoking Asylum of the Daleks and Into the Dalek by being a story that is about character rather than extermination and explosions, though of course, there’s some of that too. It also has an unnerving ending that this listener had to return to in order to confirm or deny some suspicions that there was a wider arc being hinted at.
If there is, there’s no evidence of it in Alice Cavender’s The Revolution Game, a breezy romp of a story which would have fit neatly into a mid-season slot during the RTD years. So much so that I’m sure I can hear Russell hoot “Doctor Who does roller derby! Fantastic!” on an old episode of Doctor Who Confidential. The story finds Lucie’s birthday upstaged by a conflict between subjugated natives and their corporate overlords set against the backdrop of an intergalactic roller derby championship. This is Cavender’s first full-cast Doctor Who audio, and I hope to hear more from her in the future.
Impeccably plotted, this is a simple Doctor Who story that never feels simplistic, Paul McGann gets some killer lines in his confrontation with company man Clegg, played with a sort of insidious charm by Jonathan Keeble. If there’s a criticism, it’s that it feels like Lucie is slightly under-served. Without spoiling too much of the plot, she commits an act of misdirection which results in her being largely absent from a lot of the big plot reveals.
If this were a television story, it wouldn’t have mattered as the nature of Lucie’s act would have provided some amazing set-pieces, on audio, however, it feels like she fades into the (excellent) sound design. Far from being the cringey ‘down with the kids’ story, it could have been indifferent hands, The Revolution Game is the big surprise of the set, a well-written and entertaining slice of proper comfort blanket Doctor Who that manages to feel fresh and new as well as comment on the current state of capitalism. A tall order, but Cavender and her cast certainly deliver.
Eddie Robson’s The House on the Edge of Chaos, however, is less fresh, cribbing on some of his earlier Big Finish plays such as The Condemned. In it, the Doctor and Lucie land on an unfinished planet called Horton’s Orb, where the only sign of civilisation is a vast manor house beset on all sides by deadly static and an interior decorated with multiple pictures of the same mysterious woman. In the stronger moments, it’s a beguiling, atmospheric piece of high concept sci-fi which also manages to feel like a Daphne Du Maurier novel.
In the weaker moments, it does begin to feel like a Children in Need sketch where Sapphire & Steel are assigned to Downton Abbey. That being said, these upstairs, downstairs scenes of second dessert and arranged marriages is elevated by Sheridan Smith’s performance as Lucie, her boldness and brashness cutting through the (not very convincing) cut-glass tones of her hosts. Ultimately, The House on the Edge… is a sharp class satire about status and one’s position in society.
Rupert Vansitartt is excellent as the mysterious Mr Horton, whose solution to the howling chaos outside is to imprison people in pre-defined roles determined by their societal position. It’s just unfortunate that the denouement feels incredibly familiar and the performances by the rest of the Horton family grate somewhat, but it’s an intriguing enough story that once again brings a sense of variety to this set.
Rounding things off is another completely different sort of Doctor Who story and, bizarrely, the second Fendahl audio from Big Finish this year! You don’t make it 20 years in the Doctor Who audio market without taking a few risks I suppose. Alan Barnes’ Island of the Fendahl, begins as Doctor Who’s take on The Wicker Man but spins off into something quite different in the last quarter. It’s a bold move to write a sequel to Image of the Fendahl, let alone do it on an audio medium, but of course, the real threat of the Fendahl is the cult that it attracts and this is realised to rather a creepy degree by Barnes’ script. And what a script it is, full of black comedy, evocative dialogue about the mysterious Fandor isle, some wonderfully tart and dismissive lines for McGann’s Doctor, and a rather brilliant bit of business involving the Doctor and Lucie being stuck between two warring collectives of weirdos.
Once again, due to various plot contrivances, Lucie Miller is the one driving the action; calling for medical assistance, investigating the possible kidnapping of a young girl, saving the world and shouting at seagulls. As much as this is a play about ritual, meaning, death and giant caterpillars, it’s also a play that hinges on the Doctor and Lucie’s friendship. These are two people who (almost) know exactly what the other would do, who are absolutely loyal to each other and are also one of the funniest TARDIS teams ever.
Big Finish has spent the past 20 years giving us new adventures for our favourite Doctors, companions, monsters, spin-off properties, recurring characters, and one-off guest stars so I would very much like to request even further adventures of Lucie Miller. That “Volume 1” tag gives me a great deal of hope.