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28 October 2020

Manufacturer: Big Finish Productions

Written By: Gemma Arrowsmith & Katharine Armitage

RRP: £14.99 (CD) / £12.99 (Download)

Release Date: September 2020

Reviewed by: Nick Mellish for Doctor Who Online

The Flying Dutchman by Gemma Arrowsmith

"The Doctor, Ace and Hex find themselves on a seemingly deserted boat in the middle of the ocean. Eventually locating the crew, they discover that the men have been in hiding to avoid the attack of the legendary ghost ship The Flying Dutchman that they’ve recently glimpsed approaching through the fog. But ghosts don’t exist. Do they?"

Displaced by Katharine Armitage

"The Doctor, Ace and Hex arrive inside a mystery. An ordinary house where something extraordinary is happening. There are no occupants, the doors are sealed, and someone - or something - is attempting to communicate. And when the TARDIS locks them out, Ace and Hex suspect the Doctor of his usual tricks.

But the truth is even more disturbing..."

WARNING: The following review contains spoilers. You have been warned!

Perhaps more than anything else, this sudden showing of shorter plays (one 4x4 release and four two-parters in a row, with another two 4x4 releases up next) shows off the schedule disruption which Big Finish have endured thanks to Coronavirus. It's an unexpected upheaval just before the main range is completely changed, but not necessarily a bad one as these shorter, punchier plays sometimes yield good results. What about here though? 

The Flying Dutchman
By Gemma Arrowsmith

We kick things off with The Flying Dutchman, the main range debut for Gemma Arrowsmith whose play for The Paternoster Gang, Spring-Heeled Jack, impressed me. The Doctor, Ace and Hex land on a seemingly abandoned ship but soon discover its crew in hiding, avoiding a ghostly apparition: the Flying Dutchman has been sighted and no-one is safe… or are they?

First up, the regular cast. There's a lovely bit near the start where the Doctor is guessing the century they are in. Hex points out that he only knows because the date is printed elsewhere and the Doctor shuffles off, a bit embarrassed, as Ace tells Hex not to be a killjoy and that the Doctor just enjoys showing off. It's a really nice piece of character work that showcases the regulars well, with McCoy in particular being in good form.

Philip Olivier notes in the extras that Hex doesn't do all that much in this play, and that's certainly true. He's made out to be seasick and you don't get too much else from him, though Olivier puts in a game performance as ever.

This play is really Ace's, with her forming a bond with a cabin boy with a secret (a secret you'll guess fairly quickly, to be honest). It's here that things fall apart though, as you soon discover that this is less an episode of Doctor Who and more an episode of Scooby-Doo, complete with sailors doing their best "Arrrrgh me hearties!", ghosts that are just men with special powder on them, and some extremely simplistic "girls are great!" vibes: a very good message to be made, but made here with little subtlety, if any.

It's all a bit too twee in the end. By the time we had Archie able to hold their own in a sword fight against old sailors despite only being taught swordfighting a few minutes ago, I think I'd given up looking for depth.

That's not necessarily a bad thing, mind. Who is good at dipping into different genres and styles, and if young children's comic book yarn is what was sought, this definitely ticks some of those boxes. I did rather like Ace and Hex desperately looking for an alien or ghostly cause of everything occurring, as if they were aware they're not in a usual Doctor Who adventure and they're trying to rationalise things. Ace seemingly knowing what the Flying Dutchman is one moment and not in the next just to let the Doctor explain it to the audience however smacks of sloppiness.

This is a hard one to grade. On the one hand, it does what it sets out to do very well, so it's unfair really to criticise it for that. On the other, I think its goal has been achieved better elsewhere at times. If you like the simple approach, add another number to the score below. If you don't, then there is at least Sylvester McCoy on top form, rather nice cover art for the release, and the sense that the guest cast, especially Nigel Fairs, are having a lot of fun.

By Katharine Armitage

The second and final play here marks the Big Finish debut of Katharine Armitage. On the evidence here, she will surely be back before too long.

The Doctor, Ace and Hex land in an abandoned house which seems to be trapping its occupants inside. With only an automated home help along the lines of Siri and Alexa to aid them, they most solve the mystery of what happened to the family here: something alien? Something human? A bit of both?

Armitage has a really good grasp on all the regulars, writing Hex especially well and using his background as a nurse from 2020, and his relationship with Ace, to full effect, even if a bit with a badge near the start smells strongly of "this will be a plot point in the future", which it is.

Ace and Hex are both a bit fed up with the Doctor and challenge him, something the extras tries to paint as unusual but which feels pretty par for the course nowadays from Big Finish and Who in general. However, it works well here and is used for genuinely sound plot reasons instead of feeling like the done thing. There is a sense of true, solid character and plot work here that sometimes rings hollow elsewhere. Or to put it more simply, Armitage is a better writer than some in the Doctor Who fold.

The ending is grounded and somewhere between downbeat and refreshingly true. I felt perhaps the exposition made it falter a little and run out of steam, but I'd take that over something rushed or out of the blue. The Doctor awkwardly trying to convey how much he values his companions is rather sweet, as is the awkwardness of Hex and Ace avoiding their feelings for one another.

Displaced may not be perfect but it's a cut above a lot of Big Finish’s latter day output and I'm hoping Armitage comes back before too long. Until then, this play is well worth your time.

+ The Flying Dutchman / Displaced is OUT NOW, priced £14.99 (CD) / £12.99 (Download).

+ ORDER this title on Amazon!

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