Continuing our look back at the many Big Finish audios on offer, Big Finish take their first step in the territory of The Virgin New Adventures with Paul Cornell’s The Shadow of the Scourge and Robert Shearman makes his audio debut with The Holy Terror which sees The Sixth Doctor joined by the Doctor Who Magazine companion, Frobisher, the shape-changing penguin.
The Shadow of the Scourge
Written By: Paul Cornell
As you’ll know, I’ve undertaken the task of reading all of the Virgin Books for Doctor Who in order. Apart from these audios, its an era of the show that many people shy away from. However, there have been times that Big Finish has braved this era of the show, The Shadow of the Scourge is the first side-step into that universe.
It seems right then that the first author for this New Adventures era audio is Paul Cornell, especially as it also includes the first ‘onscreen’ appearance of Bernice Summerfield opposite the Doctor, played by Lisa Bowerman. Bowerman had already made a name for herself in the role through a couple of series of Bernice Summerfield audios by this time but something about pairing her opposite the Seventh Doctor and Ace makes her character all that more special. Bowerman is perfect here, which would be expected as Paul Cornell originally created the character and he makes sure that he gives her plenty to do.
Likewise is his treatment of Ace, who luckily is nowhere near as grumpy and moody as she was in the New Adventures book. This is how Ace should have been written in those novels all along, the same woman we met in the television series just in a slightly darker setting. She works perfectly alongside Bernice and thank god that Cornell decided to set this story when the pair were getting along. Let us not forget that they both hated each other when they met in the books, they were dark days indeed!
Cornell gives us a threat that feels entirely original to that era he is trying to emulate with the Scourge, an ancient evil which can bring out humanities woes and despairs and despite this being only a two-hour audio adventure, manages to give them more character than some writers could ever do in a 300 paged novel. The Scourge does feel like quite a threat and it is hard to imagine any other Doctor other than the Seventh tackling them. Perhaps this is because they are just as manipulative as he was. There are some really quite gory scenes here too and a nice homage to The Shining with an elevator of blood.
While the plot sticks to some of the more tried and true methods of Doctor Who storytelling, it still manages to keep things entertaining. Cornell has a great handle on characters and what makes them work best. The Seventh Doctor here is still in his master-manipulator phase but its fun to hear his manipulations come back to bite him on the backside when the Scourge prove to be more powerful than he had planned for, McCoy rises to the challenge nicely and he works brilliantly alongside Bowerman and Sophie Aldred.
If The Shadow of the Scourge does one thing absolutely right, it’s recapturing that feeling of nostalgia for the Virgin line of books. It also gives us the first ‘onscreen’ appearance of The Seventh Doctor, Bernice and Ace which Cornell’s writing breathes new life into and the threat feels wholly new and original while totally in tune with the era the play is emulating. And it makes one wonder if Cornell could give us one of the best Virgin New Adventures in a two-hour audio drama, why did so many other authors fail with a 300-page count?
The Holy Terror
Written By: Robert Shearman
I’ll be honest, I’ve always struggled with this story. It’s one of the early ‘classics’ no doubt but there is something about it I’ve always struggled with. Perhaps its because it’s not too my taste, or perhaps I’m just a little strange! Especially as looking at the story, there is virtually nothing wrong with it!
Robert Jezek makes his debut as Frobisher, the only companion who could have suited this story. Frobisher is quite a strange creation, originally created for the Doctor Who Magazine, he’s had a few appearances in audio and novelised adventures, but a shape-shifting, private investigator from New York, stuck in the form of a Penguin is certainly a strange image. Luckily, Jezek elevates Frobisher from a strange image to a real character and I did really like how he interacts with the various characters here and the role he had to play in the story. Shearman obviously likes the character too, making sure he gets plenty to do and some great lines.
Colin Baker is also on top form here. It’s all fun and games in the beginning moments until Shearman makes sure things take a turn for the macabre and Baker really sells the horror of the situation. I think it’s safe to say this is one of the more unique settings a Doctor Who story has been told in and Baker rises to the occasion perfectly. Indeed, the final episode is my favourite of the story here when the threat is revealed and it did genuinely took me by surprise both times I heard it. This is certainly Baker’s best performance from the early years of Big Finish.
Shearman also does some brilliant world-building looking at what life would be like if a monarchy were held as gods and while some of the dialogue and descriptions are pretty hilarious, things don’t take long before they take a darker turn. There is also a brilliant mix of horror and humour on offer here, something that hasn’t really been achieved since Robert Holmes’ The Talons of Weng-Chiang.
If you are a fan of really dark stories done right, The Holy Terror, is one that I’d recommend and Shearman doesn’t shy away from giving us some really gory scenes. The sound design steps up to the plate too, if you ever wondered what someone exploding would sound like, look no further than this outing. It’s a typical dark Sixth Doctor story, though perhaps a little too dark for a Doctor Who. Perhaps this is the reason why this story has never sat right with me, its a little too dark and disturbing to listen too. But there can be no denying this is a classic in the range. Even if it isn’t my particular cup of tea.