Manufacturer: Big Finish Productions
Writer: Justin Richards
RRP: £10.99 (CD) / £8.99 (Download)
Release Date: February 2015
Reviewed by: Nick Mellish for Doctor Who Online
“Cut off from the TARDIS, the Doctor and Leela find themselves stranded on a small island. But they are not alone. It is 1907, and members of the Caversham Society have gathered on the hundredth anniversary of the death of Mannering Caversham, the greatest Magic Lanternist who ever lived.
But Caversham was also a supernaturalist who claimed to have conjured up a demon from the depths of hell. As people start to die, the Doctor begins to wonder if Caversham’s story might have more than a grain of truth in it. Can the Doctor and Leela discover what really happened to Caversham a century ago? And if they do, will they live to tell the tale..?”
Audio can be a tricky medium to get right. Often cited as a very visual medium despite the absence of picture, it conjures up images through sound and description alone, uninhibited by budget limitations and limited only by the mind. That’s not to say that it comes without problems: lack of visuals means a more descriptive approach to storytelling at times, and that in turn can be problematic, leading to dialogue which sounds very unnatural (“Oh! Look! That green door is half-open with a broken handle! How strange!”)
Credit where credit is due, Big Finish is usually very good at avoiding this sort of thing. Big Finish is also very brave with what it tries to do with its plays, and on paper, a play about lanterns casting shadows and the danger that entails seems an odd beast for audio, but Justin Richards has given it his best shot here all the same.
The first episode of The Darkness of Glass is easily the strongest, setting up an isolated group of illusionists and enthusiasts in a house with the Doctor and Leela whilst the rain falls down, the wind batters all, and there’s something wicked in the glass. It loses points for explicitly drawing parallels with Fang Rock by having Leela nod to it in such a way you can almost hear her winking to the imaginary camera, but that’s a minor point in an otherwise near-flawless opening. Richards has a gift for distinctive voices, which is never more apparent than it is here, and Nicholas Briggs’s direction helps milk the tension for all its worth.
Sadly, it undoes a lot of this in Part Two, or more specifically, with the finale. I mentioned at the start that audio can sometimes fall into the trap of being unnaturally over-descriptive, and to some extent it can probably never escape that, but here it felt so much so that I found myself increasingly disappointed that the resolution wasn’t so reliant upon people telling us exactly what is going on with various props, though I appreciate also that doing that in sound alone would have been impossible.
Maybe, though, that suggests that it wasn’t the best story, or ending at least, to be committed to sound. I don’t know for sure as the first episode is so very strong, but it took this listener out of the moment at least, which was a shame.
There is a lot to celebrate still though. The setting, though familiar, is fun and executed well, and the cast is universally good. (The extras for this release show Baker and Briggs to be especially playful and happy throughout proceedings, and that certainly seeps through into the finished product.)
A special mention should definitely go to Jamie Robertson, whose soundtrack is brilliantly evocative of the original Fourth Doctor/Leela era and perfectly suited to the script, too. One thing which Big Finish really excel at with these plays is music that fits like a glove, so often done that it is overlooked a lot of the time, so I hope flagging it up here goes some way to rectify this on my part.
Another thing I want to highlight here is how much better the two-part format is fitting the Fourth Doctor this year. Pacing, story and plot this series all fit well in a way they never have done before now, as if someone at Big Finish has sat down and worked out how to really make this Doctor fit in with the format they’ve given him, rather than giving him a format and trying to make it fit as has been the feeling previously. It marks a big leap forward in quality for the series and is the first time I have been genuinely excited to hear what happens next month on month.
Though not perfect, The Darkness of Glass is a fun and interesting play nonetheless and I am certainly of the mindset now, perhaps for the very first time, that the Fourth Doctor Adventures not only can carry on as strong as this, but hopefully will carry on as strong as this.
It may have taken a while, but the Fourth Doctor finally feels at home at Big Finish, and that’s something worth celebrating.