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16 July 2014

Manufacturer: Big Finish Productions

Written By: LM Myles, Mark Ravenhill, Una McCormack & Nev Fountain

RRP: £14.99 (CD) / £12.99 (Download)

Release Date: July 2014

Reviewed by: Nick Mellish for Doctor Who Online

Review Posted: 16th July 2014

Breaking Bubbles by LM Myles
The Doctor and Peri find themselves in the palatial gardens of the deposed Empress Safira Valtris where nothing is ever quite what it seems.

Of Chaos Time The by Mark Ravenhill
Cast adrift in his own chronology, the Doctor must avert the consequences of a catastrophic experiment in using time as a weapon of war.

An Eye For Murder by Una McCormack
The year is 1939, and a case of poison pen letters at St Ursula’s College threatens to change the course of the Second World War. Fortunately thriller writer Miss Sarah Perry is on hand to investigate...

The Curious Incident Of The Doctor In The Night-Time by Nev Fountain
Michael is a young boy who likes to solve mysteries, such as the mystery of the extra gnome, the mystery of the absent father, and the mystery of the strange man in yellow trousers at the bottom of the garden.

* * *
It’s that time of the year again, when Big Finish pauses for a bit in the run of trilogies and gives us one of its ‘4x1’ releases. Ever since the highs of Circular Time, these releases have become something to look forward to (in my eyes, at least). 1001 Nights and Recorded Time were both hits in my eyes, so I was looking forward to listening to this release.

The key to getting these sort of releases ‘right’, is in creating stories slight enough to fill up half an hour but with enough detail to not feel slight; to have a plot which doesn’t feel wasted by using it up in only one episode but is arresting enough to feel just right. Short episodes, like short stories, are an art form to get right, and thankfully, this release as a whole gets it right. Naturally, there are some stories I definitely preferred to others, some plots which arrested me more than others, but in terms of all being decently-crafted episodes, this CD ticks the boxes.

Given that it covers four separate stories, I’ll look at each of them in turn for this review.

First up, we get Breaking Bubbles itself, by LM Myles. I rather liked the way this tale manages to distill much of what is typical about Doctor Who into one episode, whilst also playing it. So, we get The Doctor and his companion separated, but they end up in part working against one another. We get a prisoner and escort tale, but neither of them are as black and white as is so often the case. Indeed, this theme of playing with perception proves to be the foundation of this play: who people appear to be and who they really are; actions they say they will take but may not.

The ending is perhaps a bit rushed, but no more than you would get if there were two episodes to play with. Myles has written a strong start to the overall release and an interesting tale in its own right.

Next up is the appropriately confusingly titled Of Chaos Time The by Mark Ravenhill. If Breaking Bubbles felt like it got things started quickly, Of Chaos Time The makes it look positively pedestrian in comparison. We literally hit the ground running, caught up midway through an adventure... as does The Doctor. Again, it’s a neat take on an old trope: starting the story when it’s already well underway, except this time the protagonist is every bit as confused as the listener. Long-time listeners of Big Finish release will see similarities to Creatures of Beauty here with its disjointed structure, but whilst that was a novelty, here it is integral to the tale itself: time is all cockahoop, and it’s up to The Doctor to make sense of it all.

Of all the stories on this release, this is perhaps the one that feels most like a radio drama, with lots of scenes where The Doctor narrates his thinking aloud and describes what he sees, something inevitable with audio drama but perhaps a bit limiting at times. It’s certainly the episode which I felt stretched its premise out the thinnest, but not to the stage where it outstays its welcome. Even so, it proved to be the weakest of the four stories for me, whilst the next was the best.

An Eye For Murder by Una McCormack is a wonderfully atmospheric tale of mystery, tension, mistaken identity and politic. Set in the outbreak of the Second World War at St Ursula’s College, Peri is mistaken for a writer of mysteries and before too long, she is embroiled in finding out who is responsible for a particularly nasty series of letters at a time when racial and political tensions are reaching a peak: if only her pesky assistant, The Doctor, can stay out of trouble and do his typing in peace...

Taking a more sedate pace than the previous two tales, McCormack is able to cover a lot in the thirty minutes afforded to her, from ideological disparity at a time of racial tension, to the role of women at a time when emancipation and Feminism were dirty terms, whilst also having a lot of fun with the idea of The Doctor and Peri being detectives. They fit into that mould with incredible ease, and to be perfectly honest, I would easily have just listened to them solve a mystery in a purely-historical context rather than having an alien influence (though that said, the fantastical twist is rather a nice one and slots into the background well). Colin Baker and Nicola Bryant are on top form throughout this, Bryant in particular relishing the material she is given, and the guest cast are as strong as the script. If you listen to just one story on this release, this is the one to go for.

We end with The Curious Incident Of The Doctor In The Night-Time by Nev Fountain, a story which wears its influence on its sleeve and manages to simultaneously evoke Mark Haddon’s fantastic novel whilst being its own thing. As with An Eye For Murder, in many ways I’d have easily enjoyed this without its Doctor Who trappings.  I mean, I know you couldn’t do the episode without The Doctor and Peri being in it, but when they do arrive, they perhaps slow the pace down somewhat, which is a shame. Whilst The Doctor is flitting around in the background without any lines or interaction with the main protagonist, I was arguably more engaged with the tale. As soon as they appear, things become a bit more sci-fi/fantasy: which, in all fairness, is as it should be, really.  The Doctor and Peri, travellers through space and time and oddity aplenty, crashing into the ordinary day of a family and making it extraordinary. It’s just arguably not as arresting once this happens. I was more invested when we were just learning about Michael, his family, and his coming to terms with important events in his life.

And then, just when I resigned to this as my overall feelings towards this episode, Nev Fountain gives us the final scene and completely slaughtered me emotionally.  Baker is absolutely mesmerizing and incredible in those final few moments, and the heart is truly... touched. It’s as beautiful an ending to a tale as you’re likely to find and ends up making this second half stronger than the first.

So, there we have it. Four stories of varying strengths and varying settings. The final two were, for my money, the real winners, but the opener is strong and even the weakest of the four has much to celebrate. More like this, please. A real treat.

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