[This review reveals more about something that happens near the end of the story Thin Time than I would like. I’ve been as vague as I can, but it’s something that’s impossible to discuss at all without making it easy to guess some of the specifics.]
Part of the effect of the coronavirus pandemic on Big Finish was the rescheduling of some of the final monthly range releases. What was originally planned as a run of four for the Fifth Doctor, Nyssa, Tegan, and Marc was broken up, apparently because one of the stories in the second half bore an unfortunate resemblance to world events. So we’ve gotten Time Apart and Thin Time/Madquake now, with the other two to follow sometime in 2021. It’s a logical division point, since these two follow the characters on their separate journeys after the Doctor departs in Conversion, and the ending of Madquake sees them reunited to, presumably, travel together again in the remaining stories. Time Apart is a collection of four one-part stories featuring the Doctor at different moments in Earth history, while Thin Time also follows the Doctor; Madquake shows the companions coping with being left behind.
I’m a big fan of Big Finish’s anthologies of one-parters in principle, but in practice they often show up the perils of the twenty-five minute drama: it’s very hard to find a meaningful role for the Doctor, his companion(s), and multiple guest characters and also tell a story of any complexity. Having the Doctor on his own in Time Apart eases that pressure. These four stories aren’t deep or complicated by any means, but they never feel rushed, even the one of the four that doesn’t quite work.
Things start strong with Steve Lyons’ “Ghost Station,” a spooky, melancholy two-hander where the Doctor helps a border guard in an East Berlin underground station solve his partner’s murder. Given that I’ve said it’s a two-hander, you may be thinking there aren’t exactly a lot of suspects, but Lyons still finds a way to a surprising, emotionally resonant finale that earns its guarded optimism. The follow-up, Jacqueline Rayner’s “The Bridge Master,” finds the Doctor in a medieval village, cursed to die so his shadow can protect the village by guarding its newly-built bridge. This is standard fantasy-with-an-SF-explanation territory, and it doesn’t have much to offer in the way of surprises, but it’s pleasant and well-paced, and the way the resolution embodies the Doctor’s optimism and the theme of forgiveness is a nice touch.
In “What Lurks Down Under” by the late Tommy Donbavand, the TARDIS lands on a ship transporting a group of convicts to Australia. Almost everyone onboard has fallen into a mysterious trance. The reason why leads to one of those scenarios where the (quasi)-companion can give a heartwarming, thematically resonant speech to the antagonist. This has been done better elsewhere, but it works well enough here. The same can be said of the Doctor’s gentle refusal to take the quasi-companion along with him. The collection comes to an anti-climactic end in Kate Thorman’s “The Dancing Plague.” At 21 minutes it’s perhaps the shortest Doctor Who story Big Finish have ever produced, but it’s not short enough to make the ending come off as intended. It’s the kind of thing that would sound clever if I described it to you, but experienced as the payoff to a full narrative it’s limp, and makes you wonder why they bothered. If there were any substance to the guest characters or any evocation of the setting it might matter less, but everything feels very run of the mill.
The Doctor’s solo journeying comes to an end in Thin Time, when his arrival in a celebrated novelist’s London home on Halloween 1892 lands him smack in the middle of an alien presence’s invasion of our dimension. The Doctor soon discovers that reality itself is up for grabs, but what will be the cost of putting things back to the way they should be? Thin Time is a thin story as far as plot development goes– it’s largely a matter of finding ways for the Doctor not to achieve anything until the correct resolution dawns on him right at the end– but it manages not to feel thin. Its attempt to build emotional resonance around one of the guest characters is too earnest; all it does is tip the reader off that a tragic twist is surely coming down the line. The information about that twist ends up being delivered by a prominent Doctor Who character who has been recast for this release. My problem here isn’t so much that the new actor does a bad impression (it’s not great, but it’s not terrible either), as that they give a weak performance. That’s the peril of transitioning impressionists from comedy bits and audiobook narration to full-cast drama; someone who can sound like (for an example, not the person recast here) Nicholas Courtney when delivering a couple lines of dialogue here and there is not going to be able to play a scene as well as he does. And the scene here is of no small emotional import; having it poorly done has major implications even if you buy its dramatic logic– which I don’t, but more about that later. There are other characters who could have delivered this same message without any recasting being necessary, to a point where one wonders whether this was less a creative decision and more a trial balloon.
Madquake is by Guy Adams, who also wrote Conversion, and like Conversion it starts off seeming like it might be a strong, quiet character piece, and then part two turns into a standard runaround with a returning monster. The first half is very nice; Marc, Nyssa, and Tegan are coping in their different ways with the Doctor having abandoned them, and Marc is also questioning his own humanity in the face of his near-conversion into a Cyberman. I could wish that Marc showed even the remotest sign that he used to be a Roman from the first century BCE, but I suppose it’s time to give up on that. Callanna, the planet where the Doctor left them, has a healing, therapeutic atmosphere, but Tegan’s in no mood to have the edge taken off; she just wants to leave and get on with her life. Nyssa has faith that the Doctor will come back. But if the Slitheen have their way, there might not be anything to come back to…
Look. Having the Cybermen in Conversion at least made some narrative sense. There didn’t need to be an action-driven confrontation with them, but they were undeniably pertinent. Dropping a comedy monster from 15 years ago into a story about grief doesn’t make a lick of sense. Nor does holding back their presence until the cliffhanger of a two-part story when they’re on the cover and in the cover blurb. The use of the Slitheen here isn’t badly done or anything, though playing them straight as cruel hunter villains only underlines that whether you loved or hated them in “Aliens of London”/”World War Three” they were clearly designed to walk the line between creepy and funny. The problem is that they take over the story so completely that there’s no emotional development or resolution at all, and therefore no point to all the character work in part one. Everyone is still where they were when the Doctor left, and now he’s back they’ll presumably be expressing to him all the emotional beats they expressed here.
I’ll say this for part one of Madquake, though: it’s the only time out of all four discs of these two releases that I felt like the emotional stakes were being taken seriously. The Doctor feeling so overwhelmed that he abandons his companions on a random planet ought to be a huge deal, but the scripts and Davison’s performance in Time Apart and Thin Time never suggest that he’s feeling or acting particularly outside the norm. Occasionally he’ll say something wistful about being alone or about having suffered losses, but there’s no attempt to grapple with this specific situation. As I’ve said before, I applaud Big Finish for trying to do arc storytelling, but an arc isn’t something you can push into the background whenever it suits you. Time Apart shouldn’t be four stories that could fit anywhere into the Fifth Doctor’s life, but it is. The final scene of Thin Time, where [SPOILER] warns the Doctor about the consequences of what he’s done, falls flat not just because [SPOILER] is poorly performed but also because the portentousness of the scene doesn’t ring true to how casually the Doctor’s behavior has otherwise been treated.
The effect of all this is that these two releases feel less like a continuation of the arc and more like a hiatus in it to tell some standalone stories. They’re solid standalone stories, edging toward exceptional in the case of “Ghost Station,” but being positioned between weightier releases makes their unambitious adequacy that much more noticeable. It’s unfortunate that the ending of Madquake, which sets the arc back on track, won’t be followed up on for another five or six months. Here’s hoping it’s worth the wait.