Doctor Who and the Bad Guys

I don’t have the energy for political blogging lately– in a moment like this, what is there to say that isn’t either intuitively obvious or permanently beyond understanding?– though I am still posting stray thoughts on Twitter and Facebook. Here, instead, is a review of a couple Doctor Who audio dramas. It’s still a political subject, as you’ll see, and not just in the way that all art is political.

Next year, after 275 releases over more than two decades, Big Finish’s range of monthly Doctor Who audio dramas will come to an end. Once it was so central to Big Finish’s output that it was just called “the main range,” but in recent years, with two of the five classic Doctors having their stories released in other formats, and a host of new-series-derived box sets coming out, it’s increasingly seemed like an anachronism. Before the Fifth, Sixth, and Seventh Doctors transition to box sets, though, there are still a dozen releases left. Which is precisely the length of a subscription to the range, so I thought, why not see if they can stick the landing?

Because Big Finish’s monthly range trilogies, which fit nicely into dozen-story subscriptions, are broken up by occasional standalone releases, which don’t, a subscription to the final dozen starts a third of the way through a trilogy featuring the Sixth Doctor, Constance Mrs Clarke, and Flip. (At some point I expect I’ll buy the first in the trilogy, Cry of the Vultriss, but based on the premise and the reviews I’m not in any great rush.) I’ve previously listened to Quicksilver, the first story with this crew, but none of the subsequent four. Comments from other fans have suggested that they make for a good TARDIS team. Based on these two stories, I’d agree, though with a caveat that I’ll discuss later on.

I don’t get the impression this was intentional– Big Finish don’t seem to be interested in linking their trilogies on anything other than a narrative level, and even that is haphazard– but Scorched Earth and The Lovecraft Invasion make for an intriguing thematic contrast. They’re both set in the early 20th century, one a few years after Mrs Clarke’s time, and one a few years before it, and both deal, however superficially, with the moral problem of how to deal with and forgive bad behavior in those you can’t avoid dealing with. The rather striking thing is how the concerns of the current historical moment have shaped one story and not the other.

Scorched Earth is set in a small French village just after the liberation. Mrs. Clarke is delighted to participate in the victory celebration; she knew the Allies would win, but to actually be on the ground as the Nazis are forced into retreat is something else again. Flip is less thrilled when she discovers that part of the celebration is the ritual humiliation of Clementine, a local girl accused of collaborating with the Germans. And the Doctor is alarmed when a pair of captured German soldiers suggests that a massive forest fire in the surrounding countryside is no accident, but part of a sinister pattern of targeted attacks by an unearthly flame…

There’s a lot to like about Scorched Earth. Its interest in question of postwar justice, vengeance, and mercy is refreshingly sophisticated by Doctor Who standards, particularly in the context of World War II, where Doctor Who never seems to go beyond the stiff upper lip. The conflict over Clementine that emerges between Mrs Clarke, for whom the Nazis are an immediate enemy and a focus of personal anger, and Flip, for whom they’re bad guys out of a history book, vile but somewhat abstract, uses the contrasts between the two companions as a source of something more than obvious “she’s uptight, she’s not” comedy. And while the second half of the story pivots somewhat, as it must, from character-driven dialogue to action and peril, the resolution keeps the thematic and emotional stakes of the story relevant. The way it does so is a little hokey, but that’s better than nothing.

All that being said, Scorched Earth falls well short of its potential by offering a weirdly flat perspective on the specific moral question of collaboration and resistance in occupied France. It’s not the story’s fault that I recently read a fascinating article that touches on this very issue, but it’s certainly playing it safe that Clementine’s only crime turns out to be falling in love with one of the occupying German soldiers. In a real French village, she or others would have been much more morally compromised than that, and getting into those details would give the story’s ultimate call for forgiveness and the abandonment more weight. Instead, an awful lot of time is taken up with the German prisoners, who are really only there to set up the plot, and a group of British soldiers, who don’t have any purpose at all. I’m aware that one of them is modeled on writer Chris Chapman’s own grandfather, whose experiences gave rise to the story, but the character doesn’t offer any perspective that couldn’t come from the Doctor, Mrs Clarke, or both. The occupation of France was fundamentally something that happened to the French, not the British, and the character of Walter eats up running time that could have been spent elucidating the experience of occupation.

Scorched Earth came out in May 2020, so the next story, The Lovecraft Invasion, was expected in June. Then, after several days of radio silence at the end of the month, Big Finish announced that it had experienced unspecified “production delays,” and would be coming out later in the year. There was a widespread assumption that the “production delays” involved last-minute alterations to the story to further address Lovecraft’s racism in the aftermath of the widespread Black Lives Matter protests of this summer and the renewed debate over what some people insist on calling “cancel culture.” And so it proved; when The Lovecraft Invasion was abruptly released in late July, eagle-eyed listeners observed that a scene excerpted in the Big Finish podcast had been changed in the new release.

It’s impossible to know, beyond that alteration to the fifteen minutes included in the podcast, how different this version of The Lovecraft Invasion is to what came before. It’s fairly plain, from comments made in previews and from the decision to include a mixed-race, pansexual, trans, non-binary character in the guest cast, that Lovecraft’s bigotry was always going to be addressed. I suspect, given the complications the pandemic would have created for re-recording, that most of the new material involves the Doctor. Colin Baker is set up for remote recording, and the material that’s definitely new has him explicitly describing Lovecraft as a bigot and saying he had hoped never to meet him. There’s also a scene later on where he talks about how learning about Lovecraft’s bigotry made it impossible to enjoy rereading him, and a scene near the end where he denounces Lovecraft for daring to suggest that the two of them are at all alike. I suspect both scenes have been created or punched up in the new version, but we’ll probably never know.

That scene near the end makes an odd contrast with one immediately following it, where the Doctor discusses with his companions Lovecraft’s imminent and premature death, and the prospect, however remote, that his bigotry might have mellowed with age. He speaks more in sorrow than in anger there, and while deft writing made have made the emotional transition feel natural, here you can really sense the join. That same tension is present in a subtler way throughout The Lovecraft Invasion, which ends up being a peculiar beast: a gleefully fannish journey through Lovecraftian namedrops and homages that stops cold every twenty minutes or so to remind you that Lovecraft was a garbage human and you probably shouldn’t read him anymore. The actual Nazis in Scorched Earth get off a lot more easily than Lovecraft does.

I can’t fault Big Finish too much for this. Given how the ground shifted between when the story was recorded and when it was due for release, they had no good options. Releasing it in its original form would have opened them up to accusations of insensitivity, accusations that would likely have become more forceful rather than less so because the story acknowledged Lovecraft’s racism while still celebrating his work. Canceling it entirely would have involved financial losses and created a different, but equally disruptive sort of outcry. An extensive ground-floor rewrite would also have been costly and created fan drama. This odd, compromised release was probably the least worst choice. But it undeniably makes the listening experience a strange, abstracted one.

The Lovecraft references are just that: references. This isn’t a cosmic horror story (which would be a poor fit with the heroic, hopeful nature of Doctor Who anyway), it’s a science fiction adventure that mentions the Cats of Ulthar and Richard Upton Pickman. If that’s your jam, it’s pleasant enough. The author has a basic biographical familiarity with Lovecraft, but there’s no attempt to get at where his ugly views came from, even though the links among his bigotry, his self-image, his sheltered, shattered life, and his work are painfully evident. Instead there are trite suggestions that his failure to sign his divorce decree was a sad-sack sign of enduring love, or that he had a crippling fear of dying in a psychiatric hospital like his parents.

Guest character Calypso Jonze is a mixed-race, pansexual, trans, non-binary bounty hunter from the 51st century… and that’s it. They have no meaningful identity or role in the story beyond being an avatar of inclusivity and a stick to beat Lovecraft with. I don’t think that’s a problem necessarily, and I’m pleased that Big Finish cast a non-binary actor to play them, but I do wish they had been given more depth. They’re not even probably introduced; they’re just there during the in media res opening, chasing down the monster alongside the Doctor, Flip, and Mrs Clarke. I hope they appear again; Robyn Holdaway gives a solid performance despite thin material.

Flip and Mrs. Clarke get little to do other than be disgusted at having to interact with Lovecraft. There’s a missed opportunity here, especially in the shadow of their conflict in Scorched Earth, to say something about the insidiousness of bigotry and how perspectives can change in the light of history. This isn’t a matter of a “he was of his time” defense; those are reductive at best, and Lovecraft was unusually virulent in his bigotry even for 1930s America. But there are undoubtedly differences between how Mrs Clarke perceives race and racism and how Flip does, and teasing that out would have been more rewarding than making them a united front against Lovecraft’s hateful white supremacy.

I think this is connected to my larger problem with Mrs Clarke and Flip as a TARDIS team. They were originally separate companions before Flip reentered the Doctor’s life while he was traveling with Mrs Clarke, and the fan consensus seemed to be that while both were fine neither quite “popped” as a companion until they were paired off. I can certainly see why: there’s something missing with both. They each seem to have wandered in from a subpar example of another TV genre– broad modern sitcom for Flip, worthy WWII drama for Mrs Clarke– but they don’t have the right spark to fit into Doctor Who. Compare Nyssa and Tegan, who make a great TARDIS double-act, but who can also work as solo companions in a way that these two don’t.

Compassion is a big part of it, I think. Tegan has a big mouth, but she also has a big (and, yes, brave) heart, and she stands up for what she believes in. Nyssa can be chilly and aristocratic, but she’s enormously self-sacrificing as well. Flip, by contrast, never sounds like she’s taking anything seriously, and despite Lisa Greenwood’s best efforts, her impassioned defense of and bonding with Clementine in Scorched Earth aren’t convincing. (This was also an acute problem in the recentish two-part story Vortex Ice, where Greenwood can’t remotely make Flip the tragic leader the story needs her to be for it to have any emotional weight.) Miranda Raison does a fine impression of a dutiful, resourceful, keep-calm-and-carry-on WREN, but you don’t get the sense that she cares about the greater good for which she’s working. Disrupting the characters’ odd-couple vibe with a genuine, lasting conflict might allow their humanity to show through.

With details of the last five main range stories still unannounced, there’s no way to know whether this is Flip and Mrs Clarke’s last hurrah in the monthly format. If it is, it’s not a bad way for them to go out. Despite my reservations about the lightweight approach to complicated historical subjects and the thin characterization, these are well-acted, solidly paced plays that avoid the longueurs and the banality that have characterized too much of the monthly range. My last subscription was a disappointment, with only one of the six plays making for a particularly rewarding experience; here I’ve already achieved the same hit rate, and there are still ten to go.


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