A Roman Question

Season 19 of Doctor Who returned to a dynamic not seen since the show’s early days, when there were often not one or two companions traveling alongside the Doctor, but three. This second “crowded TARDIS” era didn’t last long before Adric was killed off in “Earthshock,” though it would briefly return the following season between Turlough’s arrival and Nyssa’s departure (and of course the current version of the show has seen it come around yet again). Big Finish has now squeezed in another four-regulars lineup, one that isn’t just set shortly after Adric’s death but also tries, at least to some degree, to follow up on it. The third companion is again male, but in the place of the brilliant, immature Alzarian, we have Marc, a Roman slave from the first century BCE. How well does he fit in? Appropriately enough for a character from the past, it depends on what kind of historical perspective you’re using. If you judge him as if he’d been created in the 1980s, he’s fine; if you judge him as a product of the twenty-first century, he’s less so.

Marc is introduced in Tartarus, which is also a bit of a crossover between Doctor Who and Big Finish’s series Cicero, in which Samuel Barnett plays the famous statesman. That and David Llewellyn’s authorship are the only major links, though the same actress also plays the minor (in this play; I haven’t heard Cicero yet) role of Cicero’s wife in both. The Doctor has come to pay a visit to one of his personal heroes, with Nyssa and Tegan in tow. But the dinner party they crash takes the usual Doctor Who turn, and soon the Doctor, his companions, and Cicero are trapped in a world where Roman mythology seems to have come to life. There’s a puzzle to solve and a quest to complete, but what sacrifices will be required at journey’s end, and from whom?

Tartarus makes for very pleasant listening– the plot is brisk and the performances are largely excellent, whether it’s Davison’s Doctor alternately fanboying over and bickering with Cicero, Barnett being snippy and instinctively commanding back, Tegan showing her usual impatience with the inequities of Roman society, or Tracy-Ann Oberman in what’s sort of the title role– but in hindsight I don’t think it does as much as it might with the mythology-come-to-life angle. It’s the kind of thing Doctor Who and other SFF franchises have done often enough, and making it feel fully rewarding here would require a great deal of specificity and cleverness. The ultimate explanation is also an old science fiction trope, one that pays off in a way that feels more like a homily than the conclusion the character involved would actually make in the real world. A major part of the climax involves Cicero’s rhetorical skill, and I don’t mean it as any slight on David Llewellyn’s skill (not to mention Samuel Barnett’s) if I suggest that that moment doesn’t quite come off. I appreciate the effort nonetheless, and I look forward to hearing more of their collaboration when the Big Finish Originals come to the top of my Big Finish backlog.

Tartarus is the first in an initial trilogy of Marc stories, and the end of its charming-but-otherwise-pointless framing device (in which Cicero narrates the story’s events in a letter) sets a pretty effective hook for Marc’s ongoing story. Before that hook leads anywhere, though, we have Interstitial/Feast of Fear, another pair of two-parters. This is the first time I’ve felt that two-parters from Big Finish were definitely benefiting from the shorter format; unfortunately, it’s not because they’re great, but because being shorter makes them unobjectionable instead of outright dull. They both start promisingly enough, perhaps because the shorter form prevents any throat-clearing preliminaries. In Interstitial, the TARDIS lands on a seemingly deserted space station where something has gone wrong with time, while Feast of Fear opens in media res, with Nyssa as the cruel ringmaster of a bizarre circus and the Doctor wandering around blindfolded spouting gibberish.

These concepts generate a few atmospheric sequences, but once explanations start coming along they’re crushingly mundane (experiments gone wrong, psychic vampires), and events play out along familiar lines. The most disappointing thing, though, is that Marc barely gets anything to do, and shows not the least sign that this is his first experience of TARDIS life, or for that matter that he’s anything other than a contemporary human. At one point in Interstitial the ruthless, arrogant scientist (I meant what I said about crushingly mundane) ages him to death and back again several times, and he barely even reacts!

The conclusion of the trilogy is also a pair of two-parters, Warzone/Conversion, though these two are more tightly linked than Interstitial and Feast of Fear. They’re also quite a bit better, particularly Warzone, where what seems at first to be a (well) warzone turns out to be an obstacle course for extreme athletes. The athletes are protected from the potentially-fatal hazards of the course by wristbands that allow them to adjust the difficulty level and call for help, but for the Doctor and his companions, there’s nothing to protect them from being shot, drowned, or electrocuted. It’s not hard to see a satire here on contemporary fitness obsessives and their gadgets. As it happens I listened to both halves of this story while taking brisk daily walks for no better reason than that my Apple Watch is always nudging me to, so I do appreciate the joke. And even though it’s only a two-part story, the regulars all get something to do. While the Doctor bonds with an athlete pursuing a personal best and Nyssa (who is in no mood for this, and her exasperation and determination are great fun) teams up with a charity runner wearing an absurd costume, Tegan watches warily as Marc plays gladiator… with potentially deadly consequences.

It’s hard to say anything about where this story goes near the end, or about what then happens in Conversion, without giving too much away. Things happen in Conversion that push, or should push, the regulars to their emotional limits, but the writing and the performances don’t make you feel like that’s actually happening. The decisions the characters make at the end of the story, which lead into future releases, are absolutely believable given what the emotional stakes here should have been, but the script is too concerned with putting action sequences into a story that doesn’t need them. The Nyssa/Marc stand is a B-story that could have limited itself to its emotional beats without devising an awkward way to literalize them. Meanwhile, there are two guest characters in the Doctor/Tegan half of Conversion who, entertaining though they are, serve no essential narrative purpose, and who interrupt, both literally and figuratively, the best scene in the play, where the Doctor and Tegan talk about the past. That conversation ought to have been only the beginning of an emotional reckoning, but instead it gets shoved to the side. The real problem, though, is that the director hasn’t elicited, and the performers haven’t offered, work that suggests this is anything other than a standard runaround for our heroes. The Marc strand is pretty obviously an attempt to do a serialized follow-up to a TV event in a way that wouldn’t have been attempted in 1983, but it’s not going to work if you style all the scripts exactly like it was still 1983.

And that’s also the big problem with Marc himself. Having him approach the events of Warzone like he’s a gladiator is pretty much the only time in any of the four two-parters that he behaves like someone from Ancient Rome. Writing a character whose frame of reference is so different from ours in a believable, non-tedious, non-patronizing way is a substantial task, which is presumably why the classic series didn’t bother with characters like Victoria, but no one made Big Finish do it. Adric’s replacement could easily have come from the present day if all they wanted was a generic male companion. There are benefits as well as risks in creating non-contemporary companions; Russell T Davies has talked about how he was tempted to make the companion following Rose a Victorian maid after being charmed by the dialogue from “The Girl in the Fireplace” where Reinette spoke of the spaceship as a place “where the days of my life are pressed together like the chapters of a book.” A character like Marc offers similar opportunities for novel, poetic ways of thinking about science fiction concepts. Instead, Marc is just sort of there, and George Watkins’ performance… well, it’s not “so bad that being Peter Davison’s nephew is obviously why he got the job,” but it’s also not “so good you’ll forget that he’s Peter Davison’s nephew.”

My main takeaway from the first Marc trilogy is not so much that it’s all solid or better quality-wise, though it is, as that whether it’s above average, average, or inoffensive, it’s always rewarding to listen to because there’s always something to think about. Even Interstitial and Feast of Fear, which are very derivative on the level of premise, have some arresting images, and it’s obvious overall that Big Finish are trying to do something new here, even if they aren’t doing it all that effectively. There was a time, after the Eighth Doctor spun off into his own range and the various companion-driven arcs (Older Nyssa, Evelyn, Hex) had ended, when all Big Finish’s creative energies seemed to be elsewhere. At that point the monthly range was so impoverished that its idea of innovation was throwing established solo companions into new pairings to see if anything interesting happened (a qualified yes for Flip and Mrs Clarke, an “oh dear God no” for Ace and Mel), and they didn’t appear to be interested in opportunities to tell larger stories with a more modern sensibility. This trilogy and the followups with Marc, which are still ongoing, seem to be reversing that trend. I have some doubts about how well everything will pay off, but I’m excited to be along for the ride.


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