In the 20 years Big Finish has been releasing its monthly range of Doctor Who audios, they’ve mostly stuck to the “classic” four-episode format. But once in a while they shake things up a bit. In 2007, they tried a three-parter/one-parter format for a while, and since then they’ve periodically released anthologies of four one-parters. In 2017 they took a shot at the only permutation left, with a trilogy of pairs of two-parters (if you know what I mean). I haven’t heard the Fifth Doctor installment, and I haven’t (yet, anyway) written a full review of the Sixth Doctor one, but I’m here today with thoughts on the Seventh Doctor pair, Shadow Planet/World Apart. In Shadow Planet, the Doctor, Ace, and Hex pay a visit to a world where you can have your Jungian shadow separated from your body and chat with it, while in World Apart, they arrive on a planet that’s entirely devoid of life… or is it?
Listening to a bunch of two-part stories in quick succession has made me realize that the problem with the weaker four-part stories in the main range isn’t that particular length; it’s that a lot of Big Finish writers don’t have a great grasp of how to pace a story at any length. The two-parters still feel like a breath of fresh air because an overlong or awkwardly structured story of 50-60 minutes is obviously less of a slog than an overlong story of 100-120 minutes, but that doesn’t mean the writing is any better, or any worse. If the great risk of the four-part format is that a capture-and-release cycle or some other repetitive narrative device will be used to fill up time, the great risk of the two-part format is that the story will come to end before it really gets off the ground. And that’s what holds back both of the basically solid stories in Shadow Planet/World Apart.
Of the two, Shadow Planet is definitely better paced overall. It’s obvious that something nefarious is happening, revelations about what that involves are doled out at a reasonable pace, Ace and Hex have their shadows separated, chaos ensues, a major threat emerges, further secrets come to light, and then (spoilers, sweetie) the Doctor saves the day. The only problem is that, the invocation of Jungian psychology notwithstanding, the story isn’t really about anything. You’d think Ace and Hex meeting their shadow selves would contribute something to characterization or theme, but nope: the shadows act like brats in ways that contribute to the development of the plot, then they abruptly cease to matter. It’s not that the story needs to use the shadows more substantively, but it does need something to elevate it above a sprightly runaround.
World Apart is a much better story… eventually. It leaves Ace and Hex on their own in an eerie environment that pushes them to their limits physically and mentally. The trouble is that it waits to do so until the second half of a two-part story. Part one is very much in an introductory mode, and while there are some lovely scenes there it’s definitely paced liked there are going to be three more parts afterward, not just one. It’s not that part two is rushed in a narrative sense; because of certain plot points there’s not much that actually has to happen there. But the psychological journey the characters go on needs more space to play out in, and the bleak atmosphere the story evokes, while pretty effective in this form, would be more so if the listener had more sense of being slowly broken down by it as the characters are. Ace and Hex’s behavior at the end of the story depends in no small part on the depth of their suffering, and a major scene falls short of its intended effect because their reactions aren’t quite earned.
I very much like that these stories revisit the Ace/Hex era. Big Finish have been weirdly reluctant to reuse their own companions after their exit stories, even though there’s no good reason to stop featuring Charley just because The Girl Who Never Was exists but keep churning out Peri releases in spite of “Mindwarp.” The attempt to tie these stories into the character arcs of that era is weak, though: Hex’s crush on Ace is mentioned a couple times but never goes anywhere despite the extreme circumstances of World Apart, and Ace’s behavior in general feels more like TV Ace than the more mature traveler of the Hex era. (This is doubly a problem because TV Ace brings out Aldred’s weaknesses as a performer. She’s a perfect match for Sylvester McCoy in that they’re both appallingly bad at conveying shouty anger.) But the basic dynamic of the mysterious, manipulative Seventh Doctor, the gung-ho Ace, and the reserved, contemplative Hex is as strong as ever. Big Finish have continued to experiment with paired two-parters now and again in the monthly range, and there’s another one with the Seventh Doctor, Ace, and Hex coming up next month; I look forward to revisiting this team again.