The fact Big Finish managed to not only survive what seemed to be the dying days of the program's popularity but go on to produce some of the very best Who in any medium and have a influence on the revived television series (most obviously Robert Shearman's contribution to the first season, but only three weeks ago we had a Cyberman story where the words “Spare Parts” were repeated several times as a wacky in-joke) says a lot for the talent of everyone involved.
Though it's only a coincidence this is a Colin Baker story (each Doctor gets a turn at the anthology release in sequence), it's appropriate as the 6th Doctor is by far the one that's benefited most from Big Finish, pretty much all of his stories that are actually any good come from the audio era. Here he's teamed with Nicola Bryant for the first time since 2006's bloated Year of the Pig in the main range, and their easy going chemistry, honed after years of working together, makes even the weakest stories in this release an easy listening experience.
First up is the title story, written by Catherine Harvey, who, in her other life as an actress played one of the Bennet sisters in the generally terrible Red Dwarf episode Beyond A Joke, which has an interesting link to one of the other stories on this release as we'll see. It has the Tardis summoned to the court of Henry VIII during his marriage to Anne Boleyn, where it turns out the King has (what's basically) a magic pen that sees whatever it writes become true.
There's some nice stuff with Peri having to desperately avoid Henry's lustful intentions, but otherwise this is a very poorly thought through tale. Henry has this amazing power that should make him invincible, but his paucity of ambition doesn't even extend to having the scribe write that all his children should be boys as desired. Or that his wife not mind his adulterous antics. The scribe himself is equally bad, never once thinking to slip in a “Maybe Henry shouldn't be such a tosser” line. Throw in a very strained performance from Paul Shearer as Henry and you have a disappointing start to the collection. As written it's clearly meant to be played by Brian Blessed and requires lots of boisterous shouting, but Shearer sounds like a posh softly voiced man who wouldn't say boo to a goose trying as hard as he can to do something he's not really very good at.
The other half of the first disc (yeah, you crazy kids and your downloads, I'm still thinking in terms of CD's), Paradoxicide, (by Richard Dinnick) is equally disappointing. As the title suggests it's the sort of “Timey Whimey” tale the new series has come to embrace under Stephen Moffat, with the Doctor and Peri being drawn to the planet Sendos, where virtually the entire population mysteriously died off leaving only their famous armoury, by a distress signal Peri herself has sent. It's all fairly predictable and the all female villainous aliens are so incredibly dumb in their hatred of men they actually seem too stupid to live. It doesn't help that the Doctor's presence is the direct cause of a planetary genocide, something so bleak and serious a 25 minute play can't possibly deal with it and so we close on some terrible “Peri” puns instead.
The second half of the release thankfully kicks things up a gear. A Most Excellent Match (by Matt Fitton) is a comedic send up of Jane Austin/Pride and Prejudice and the literature of the period in general. Now, I'm not nearly familiar enough with the novels being spoofed to get all the jokes. Indeed, thanks to the wonders of the British education system six months spent studying Wuthering Heights in depth means I now have absolutely no idea what it's about, except that Heathcliff probably isn't a cartoon cat. Shame. But if you're going to do a comedy around one of the best loved comedic novels of all time you've got to be pretty sure the comparison is going to stand up to even the slightest scrutiny.
The plot, about an Austin based virtual reality program, is similar to that of Beyond a Joke (see, I said there'd be a connection), which is pretty much an example of how to do this badly. Thankfully, this is better, with the idea of the 6th Doctor having to play a suitor in opposition to Mr. Darcy as he tries to get Peri (playing Elizabeth Bennett unsurprisingly) out of the program safely is very nearly sweet and funny enough by itself to carry the whole play. When other novels get crossed in (including Moll Flanders) the jokes tend to whiz a little more over my head, but there's still enough charm here to make this story a most excellent match for your ears.
If A Most Excellent Match has the feeling of a Star Trek Holodeck episode then the final story, Question Marks (by Philip Lawrence), goes even further by being very like a specific episode, The Next Generation instalment Conundrum (though other SF and fantasy shows have done similar plots in the years since, it's the ship based setting that really calls Trek to mind here).
When the crew of a ship, including (or so they think as she's wearing a uniform) Peri, wake up with no memory of who they are and how they got there and find the equally amnesic Doctor behind a locked door they have to put their mistrust aside to try and work out what's going on as the ship, which turns out to be buried in lava, inches closer to destruction.
It does suffer slightly in comparison to other shows take on this basic story, as in cases like The Next Generation or Buffy part of the fun comes from seeing the large cast given a chance to interact in different and unusual ways. With only the Doctor and Peri known to us here there's little chance for that, but it's still an incredibly tense and claustrophobic piece with some very nice lines and ideas in it, even if the Captain's insistence on calling the Doctor “Question Marks” after those on his collar gets a bit wearisome as the play goes on.
Oddly, despite there being officially no overall theme to the release, it's the only one of the four stories that doesn't deal with male/female relationships and how they're perceived, meaning it does seem a little out of place. And the explanation of what's going on is somewhat technobabbleish, but that doesn't stop this being a very strong final for the collection and means the strengths of the second half just about outweigh the weaknesses of the first.
This is still the least successful overall of the various four one parter releases done over the years, and seems a somewhat disappointing way of celebrating a milestone despite winding up above average. This also means its been a somewhat underwhelming year for the Sixth Doctor as the Thomas Brewster trilogy that opened 2011 didn't really manage anything better than “OK”. Hopefully with a new companion being introduced the Doctor who is normally at the forefront of Big Finish's best output will get a better deal in 2012.
Three Bennet Sisters out of five.