Can you believe that Big Finish are nearly twenty-years-old?! We’ve seen them grow so much since their first release, Bernice Summerfield: Oh No It Isn’t! And the changes are still coming with Big Finish switching from trilogies with one Doctor/companion team and having a stand-alone set of adventures spaced out throughout the year with a different Doctor and a brand new UNIT team.
The Helliax Rift sees the Fifth Doctor being the first to encounter the new UNIT team. Set in the eighties, sometime between Lethbridge Stewart and Bambara, Lieutenant Colonel Price heads the new group. Played by Russ Bain, Price is miles away from the friendly Brigadier Lethbridge Stewart, even Brigadier Bambara. He is edgy, ready to use guns instead of words and untrusting, particularly of the Doctor. We’ve also got Corporal Maxwell, played Genevieve Gaunt filling in the Corporal Bell duties and in a real star turn, even though I’ve never seen The Inbetweeners, Blake Harrison stars as Acting Medical Officer, Lieutenant Daniel Hopkins, the substitute companion for this tale.
When he joined UNIT, Daniel Hopkins thought he knew what UNIT would be like. Lights in the sky? Check. Traipsing across the countryside after strange lights? Check. Not to mention strange encounters of the first, second and third kinds.
But Daniel Hopkins has no idea what alien beings are really like. All that changes the day of the Fallen Kestrel. The day he met the Doctor…
Author Scott Handcock kicks the story off with the Doctor already on the case following strange signals coming from a part of the English countryside and it turns out that while he has been investigating, UNIT is on the case too but they are chasing each other. All this leads to some humorous callbacks to Peter Davison’s days in All Creatures Great and Small. It isn’t long before the Doctor falls foul of UNIT and lands with the impatient Price. Naturally though, he forms a friendship with the Medical Officer Daniel Hopkins who reminds him of Harry Sullivan, who even gets name-dropped.
The new UNIT gang are a strange one. Maybe it is because we are all so used to the two Lethbridge Stewart groups and understandably, this gang is supposed to be different. But I’m not sure that making them darker and edgier was really the best idea. This results in a leader who is less friendly and takes a little while longer to be liked by the listener. Lethbridge Stewart and Kate are both quite open and friendly, even Bambara, who liked to talk with her fists, would listen to the Doctor. But Price doesn’t, he does his own thing, even if it means getting his men into trouble. There are a couple of moments in this story where you think if he had just listened then everything bad would never have had happened. It is almost so infuriating that it makes it unbearable. Luckily the performance from Russ Bain is good enough to save it from being really irritating and it will be interesting to see if the character gets better in the upcoming audios. The same could be said for Corporal Maxwell who doesn’t really get much to do. Hopefully, she too will get more material in later stories.
The same can’t be said for Hopkins though. From the get-go, Handcock handles the character brilliantly. He is the perfect love-letter for Harry Sullivan and he bounces off the Doctor brilliantly. The performance from Blake Harrison is pitch-perfect too. Having never seen The Inbetweeners, the star factor was completely lost on me but it just adds to the fact that Big Finish are getting more and more well known. Hopkins works brilliantly with the Fifth Doctor and the pair are very similar. They both feel a little out of place with the new darker-UNIT as both would prefer to ask first rather than shoot first and ask later. Both care about people and when they both discover where the strange signals are coming from, Hopkin’s throws himself into hero mode, doing all he can to save all those he can. It will be extremely interesting to see how he interacts with the Sixth Doctor in July’s Hour of the Cybermen.
Handcock’s story is a sound one, even if it does lose it a little towards the end. While the first two episodes are quite amusing, throwing glances at Doctor Who and Davison’s role in All Creatures Great and Small, the last two episodes take a darker tone, with people being shot and creatures tearing each other apart, a little too graphically maybe for a Doctor Who audiobook.
What makes The Helliax Rift really work though is that it is never clear who is the real villain of the piece. It is a shame that this is never fully explored to any great detail, with any messages of who is right or wrong when it comes to armies and violence when it is overshadowed by action that can get a little confusing to follow at times. But if you try and look past the story’s visual feel there are a few messages dotted about here and there if you can catch them.
The good script from Scott Handcock is dealt with brilliantly by Jamie Anderson who has become a really masterful director at Big Finish. Each story he has directed has been a good one, sometimes even a brilliant one and The Helliax Rift is no different. For its few faults, it rattles along at a surprising pace and is enjoyable throughout. The music and sound design Joe Kraemer and Josh Arakelian are very evocative and there are some brilliant 80s motifs added to the music style to help fit this tale into its intended decade.
All-in-all, The Helliax Rift is an enjoyable little story that, might not set the world on fire but will give you an enjoyable couple of hours. Blake Harrison’s Hopkins is certainly a breakout character and it will be interesting to hear him interacting with the Sixth and Seventh Doctors later on down the line. And the new UNIT team is interesting, even if they don’t feel like they settled too well in the Doctor Who world just yet. But I have faith in Big Finish that this all part of their story, estranging the Doctor from UNIT a little. It’s certainly going to be an interesting experiment that I look forward to seeing the continuation of when the 80s Cybermen, voiced once more by David Banks’, return in a few months time with Hour of the Cybermen…