28 August 2018

Manufacturer: Big Finish Productions

Written By: Una McCormack

RRP: £14.99 (CD) / £12.99 (Download)

Release Date: July 2018

Reviewed by: Nick Mellish for Doctor Who Online


"London, 2017. Except... it isn't. Berlin, 1961. But it isn't that either. Not really. Not in the timeline the Doctor knows. Something is very wrong.

While Ace tries to save the life of a wounded British spy, Mel and the Doctor must get to grips with the modern day socialist Republic of Mokoshia. For Mel it feels strangely familiar and 'right', which makes the Doctor feel even more uneasy.

Soon, a message from a dark and blood-soaked distant future is on its way... But the Doctor will have to act fast to stop this timeline becoming reality.

And with Ace stranded in an alternate 1961, will saving the Earth end her existence?"

They say that bad news comes in waves, but I’ve often found the reverse to also be true. 

 

After a few months now of plays mostly failing to land for me, Big Finish have suddenly hit a run of very strong offerings: The Barbarians And The Samurai is hands-down the best thing Andrew Smith has written for Big Finish and had me raving about it to friends; Flight into Hull! is a truly fantastic story by Joseph Lidster (I was, I’ll admit, very unsure about wanting to hear anything about the Meta-Crisis Doctor until I saw his name attached to the project, and both outings were very strong); False Coronets by Alice Cavender was a lot of fun; I’ve only dipped into Class so far but what I’ve heard I’ve liked; and then there is this, Red Planets by Una McCormack.

In a word? Superb.

Mel and the Seventh Doctor find themselves on Earth in 2017 - only not quite the Earth it should be: Mel is singing Russian anthems and recalls a history very different to that she should remember and even the Doctor can’t persuade her otherwise. Meanwhile, Ace finds herself in Berlin in the early 1960s but, again, things are all askew. Time and history are at a crucial turning point and it’s going to be up to the two groups to put things right.

“Okay,” people will say. “Parallel timelines. Done this before!” Ah, but rarely with such grace and depth and plausibility. This isn’t just spinning out an idea into a side-story, but creating a believable world. You feel you could spend an entire trilogy exploring the ins and outs of this new history and not get bored, and it is this that makes it a cut above the standard, alternative-history adventure. McCormack goes into just enough detail to make it hold tight but not enough to swamp you with detail and research.

The characters are rich, the performances strong, the different locations (the past! The present! Space!) varied enough to stand tall and carry three very different, but equally engaging storylines. The play also scores points for being true to the era in which it is set, i.e. the Seventh Doctor’s run on TV. Yes, Mel here is still the Mel of Big Finish and not the one often criminally underwritten on-screen (poor Mel, I do love her) but you can picture the BBC sets as you listen to this story and imagine them pulling it off. Credit must go to the sound design for that and also the direction by Jamie Anderson, not to mention the script editing by Guy Adams. (He was also in the driving seat for the excellent Davison trilogy which kickstarted the year, and I see he was in charge for next month’s play, too. This bodes well.)

Red Planets is helped along by sterling performances from the three leads. As long-time fans, we know the anecdotes of old: no glasses and late to the audition, a letter sent whilst working with builders, a chance encounter charming people at a party, lying about being American or lying about Australian air hostesses. We know these tales of old and that knowledge can, at times, make us take for granted how good the casting was; how perfect the fit between role and actor. This play helps us be more appreciative of that. Sophie Aldred in particular, gives us what is, for my money, one of her strongest outings as Ace, yet.

The ending of the play sets things up for stories to come and with a whopping five McCoy plays on the trot, it’s doubly nice that this one is so very good. This play, like those at the start of 2018, reminds me just how brilliant the Main Range can be. There’s an energy about Red Planets; a spring in its step and a confidence in its vision that all make for one of the most enjoyable listens I’ve had from Big Finish this year. In short, plays like this make the yearly subscription worth it.


+ Red Planets is OUT NOW, priced £14.99 (CD) / £12.99 (Download).

+ ORDER this title on Amazon!


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