As with the Klein trilogy from two years ago the play is keen to emphasise that Mary and the Doctor have had other adventures than those we've seen, at least creating missing stories for the pair Big Finish can go back and visit later. But as with Klein, it means we end up being denied the new companion's first visit to another planet, which is something of a shame, especially as the new series has tended to make a Big Deal of this.
In keeping with the previous two plays in the Mary Shelley trilogy the conclusion to 2011's main range releases plays with horror tropes in an every so forced ironic “Look, it's Mary Shelley! The inventor of horror fiction! In a scary story!” way. By this time the skit is wearing a bit thin, but there's other problems with Jason Arnopp's script that make it a slightly underwhelming end to Mary's time in the Tardis (if that's what it is, more on that later...).
Strangely for what was intended to be Mary's last story (though the positive reaction to the trilogy has Nick Briggs at least thinking of a continuation) she's oddly marginalised here. Being shoved into a sub-plot where she's separated from the Doctor and forced to go to visit the ruins of Garrak with the assassin, Nia Brusk. There is an attempt to give her a crush on the Doctor, but it doesn't really work as both it and the narrative device of her journal being used to convey her thoughts weren't set up by the previous plays. And her learning now the Doctor can be a bit strange and alien and being put off by this seems a bit odd, he was showing a different morality (for want of a better word) than hers in both the last two plays, and presumably in the off-screen (ear?) adventures in-between. It just makes her look a bit dim for not noticing.
The Doctor meanwhile deals with the main plot, winding up being considered a Garrak escapee and locked up for being seen with the fiendish Brusk before she and Mary ran off. The sleeve notes for the release mention this is a “Political” play, though in practice it doesn't do more that scratch the surface of the idea that Garrak born citizens in Stronghaven are having their civil liberties curtailed. The play is more concerned with the pulp adventure offered by an army of skeletons (and annoyingly the Doctor pre-empts any terrible puns lazy internet hacks might want to make by getting in there with the Dem Bones joke first).
Despite the initial locking up and threats of violence the Doctor quickly gains the trust of new Stronghaven President Vallen. Unfortunately Vallen is being haunted by the ghost of Harmon, and is being forced by it to weaken the citiy's defences for the skeletons. There's some laboured comedy as Vallen tries to repeatedly tell the Doctor this only to get interrupted, but David Harewood as Vallen is actually a highlight of the play. Considering how camp and boggle-eyed he was in both the final David Tennant TV story (where he was the completely pointless tertiary villain after Rassilon and the Master) and as Friar Tuck the BBC's half arsed Robin Hood the genuine fear and uncertainty he shows is a pleasant surprise, you wind up rooting for him and squirming at the same time.
The Doctor goes to Garrak to rescue Mary, and finds Harmon is actually still alive, it was really the much loved Karnex who was behind everything. Even his own assassination (due to gonzo mental powers) as part of a bonkers scheme to become an immortal “Bone Lord” (stop sniggering at the back there. Show some maturity people). The skeletons then arrive to kill everyone, but the Doctor, Mary and Brusk manage to escape and return to Stronghaven, where Vallen has been replaced by his aide on the sensible grounds that he sees dead people. Unfortunately, she succumbs to what is actually Karnex's “Ghost” as well, putting in place what he needs to become the Bone Lord (no, really, stop that laughing. How old are you again?).
The end of the play, where Mitch Benn hams it up like a panto villain on acid as the made of skeletons Karnex, is something I think will divide listeners. Anyone hoping for a remotely serious or scary play will be disappointed, but for me the sheer undiluted camp of the scenes between him and the Doctor helped prop up a story that till then, had been flagging badly. I especially liked the bit where he revealed he'd defeated the forcefield the Doctor had been using to hold him in check slightly before, but hadn't done anything as he'd been enjoying gloating over everyone.
Thing end where the Doctor sets up a device that will use Karnex's telepathic control of the bones against him, but in best River Song style Brusk, knowing it will kill him, sacrifices herself instead. The Doctor and Mary then run away very quickly, with no real hint that the mistreatment of the Garrak survivors will actually be stopped now the truth is out.
The play ends on an ambiguous post credits scene where Mary has decided to go home, but hasn't yet asked the Doctor to take her back. This of course leaves the way open for future stories, but, whilst it would be nice to see Mary go out on a more central role for her, you've got to wonder how much longer Big Finish can stretch credulity over her having a long period of adventuring only to return to the same moment she left without anyone noticing. As good as Julie Cox has been, perhaps this is the best place to end it?
Army of Death is most successful at being a camp romp, the attempts to be serious, thoughtful and scary fall somewhat flat. In the later case I think because no one actually finds walking skeletons that scary, they're a bit too far removed from people to be as effective as zombies proper, and we tend to associate them more with fun rompy Saturday afternoon films than out and out horror.
However, a nice OTT villain and some good supporting performances mean it at least flies along pleasantly enough, and perhaps it only really suffers from closing out a very strong year for Big Finish, with only the Sixth Doctor/Thomas Brewster stories not really working very well.
Oh, and if anyone at Big Finish is reading this, how about the next Mary story being about her possession by a supernatural being? Called Ghost in the Shelley. You can have that one for free...
Two and a half should bones connected to neck bones out of five