The Ghastly Impermanence: Eighth Wonder, Part 2

Photo credit: Rooney’s Toy Photography. CC-BY-NC-ND

The Eighth Doctor adventures from Terror Firma through Memory Lane occupy an odd spot in the history not only of the Eighth Doctor but also of Doctor Who in general. As Trevor Baxendale writes in his notes to Something Inside,

The idea of me writing this script began when Paul McGann was still the current Doctor, and the prospect of any new Doctor Who series on TV seemed very unlikely.

How times change! I was formally commissioned for the play while the new television series was in production. I was still writing as the Ninth Doctor’s exploits unfolded in the spring of 2005. By the time the play was recorded, the Tenth Doctor was about to make his TV debut.

By the time Terror Firma was released in August 2005, in fact, the Ninth Doctor’s course had run and the Tenth Doctor had debuted on TV in The Parting of the Ways. The entire character of the Doctor and indeed his entire timeline had changed in major ways the people at Big Finish could not possibly have known. Yet Big Finish had had its license extended through 2008 and six Eighth Doctor stories had already been commissioned.

The TV show had picked up many of the themes, and indeed many of the creative staff, of the DWM comics, the BBC novels, and the Big Finish audio dramas. Writers Robert Shearman, Mark Gatiss, Paul Cornell, and Gareth Roberts had all written Big Finish audio dramas. Big Finish executive producer Nicholas Briggs of course became the television shows voice of choice for Daleks, Cybermen, the Nestene Consciousness, and other nasties. Nicholas Pegg and Barnaby Edwards moved from writing directing and acting in Big Finish audio dramas to being Dalek operators for the TV series. Even Steven Moffat, executive producer of the television series from 2010 on, wrote for the very first Big Finish anthology of Bernice Summerfield stories, and the series’ first executive producer Russell T. Davies himself wrote a Seventh Doctor novel as well as the introduction to the Big Finish audio drama history.

The darkness of the Eighth Doctor audio dramas most certainly informed the darkness of the Ninth Doctor’s television scripts. The romantic quality of the Eighth Doctor most certainly informed the onscreen romance of Rose Tyler and The Doctor — no Paul McGann-Daphne Ashbrook kiss, no Billie Piper-Christopher Eccleston kiss. With the themes of the audio drama taken over by the television show and stuck with the Eighth Doctor as the limit past which they could not go, Big Finish audio dramas had to move in a different direction.

So they began to clean house.

In 2006 Doctor Who fans had a feast: Doctor Who on TV, two brand new graphic novel collections, and a New Series of BBC paperback novellas, not to mention the continuing adventures of the Doctor in Doctor Who magazine. With everything else stirring, Big Finish decided to up the ante by pairing up with BBC Radio. Negotiating a series of Doctor Who broadcasts with Radio 4, Big Finish brought The Doctor back to radio for the first time since 1996’s The Ghosts of N-Space, a decade earlier and introduced a completely new companion: Lucie Miller.

When Alan Barnes wrote Storm Warning introducing Charley Pollard he viewed her as the anti-Ace. As Charley Pollard is the anti-Ace, so Lucie Miller is the anti-Charley. Identical in age, close in stature, Charley and Lucie are diametrical opposites in personality. Lucie is loud, brash, vain, sophomoric, self-absorbed, jealous, and prejudiced. But she’s not just the anti-Charley: she is also the anti-Rose. No likelihood of any Doctor-Companion romantic nonsense here.

The first series of Eighth Doctor Adventures with introduces the character in medias res. At the beginning of the tale, Lucie already knows about Time Lords, the TARDIS and other suspicious things, while the Doctor knows nothing about her. Furthermore, she has no sense of wonder, no interest in the Doctor — not much of anything, really, except a sharp tongue and streak of vanity. It’s a perfect inversion of the usual narrative of Doctor and companion — started, in fact, by the Eighth Doctor and Charley, and continued on TV with the Doctor and Rose, and the Doctor and Martha Jones.

Throughout most of the series Lucie is more of a mouth on legs than anything else. She can walk around a planet between two Dalek warring factions without so much as a shrug and like Tegan with the Fifth Doctor spends most of her time bitching about her personal discomfort and wanting to get home. There are occasional flashes where Lucie begins to understand how serious things are, such as when the Doctor scares the creature on Phobos with his own deepest fears, but she remains infuriatingly consistent. Which, I suppose, is one of the lessons of Doctor Who: the companion’s journey is from ignorance and self-concern toward something greater. Clearly Lucie’s journey will take her farther than most.

Yet the chemistry between Sheridan Smith as Lucie “Bleedin'” Miller and Paul McGann’s Doctor positively crackles throughout. The pace is swift. The dialogue is half narrative, half repartee. There’s something genuinely alive about it all. It isn’t just because the episodes are shorter — 45 minutes instead of the traditional 80-110 minutes of the earlier Big Finish dramas — it’s because the characterizations are razor sharp and the actors clearly delight in the writing of Steve Lyons, Paul Magrs, Eddie Robson, Jonathan Clements, and Paul Sutton. It’s also because the writers have, I think, made a conscious decision to move in a direction away from the television show — a countervailing force, if you will.

Where the television series dotes on almost operatic stories of deep emotion, filled with desultory romance, the first few Eighth Doctor adventures are almost retro. They are adventure stories like those of the Fourth Doctor, but with much stronger characterization, particularly of the companion. They even return to the chapter-based structure of the old adventures. Gone is the somber tone and the experimentalism of the Divergent Universe stories. This is the Eighth Doctor gone back to the flighty, glib, effusive character of the Doctor Who movie, but with wit and self-awareness, and a proper sparring partner.

The first two series contain some wonderful stories, notably Pat Mills’ fabulous bit of chaos Dead London and Jonathan Clements’ meditation on artificial immortality Immortal Beloved. My sentimental favorite however is Mr. Clements’ Brave New Town, which is surely the most interesting Auton story ever penned in any medium.

The setup is expert. The Doctor and Lucie land in a seaside town. Only there is no seaside. The entire town is surrounded by sand. The streets are deserted. The power is out. The stores have scant supplies. There is no road out of town. Worse, the calendar is stuck on 1 September 1991 and Mr. Clements has introduced the detail that the number 1 song on the charts is Bryan Adams’ “(Everything I Do) I Do It For You,” marking this as a tale of true terror.

As The Doctor and Lucie poke around town they begin to notice that each of the town’s inhabitants is living the same day over and over yet seem remarkably unconscious of the fact until one of the teenagers decides to run off. The town’s scattered inhabitants tell the Doctor and Lucie that the sea has disappeared but it will be back soon. The Doctor and Lucie and the teenager’s parent go off in search of her across the sand moat.

And then the fun begins.

The appeal of the story for me is its lack of moralizing. For those who remember them from the TV series, Autons are supposed to be “bad” but in fact, they’re just another form of life here, struggling the same as human beings. It’s a neat parable about artificial intelligence and control, and one of my favorite stories.

Amid the fun, however, the Big Finish writers are sowing the seeds of darkness for future episodes. The second series ends with the rather bleak two-parter Sisters of the Flame/Vengeance of Morbius, in which Lucie is saved almost by accident but she cannot save The Doctor who falls to what looks like his death. It’s then that Lucie finally starts to grow up but of course it’s too late — or is it? The third series of dramas with Lucie and The Doctor pick up with Lucie being offered a choice to go find The Doctor who has been stranded on a faraway planet for 600 years. Even though her chaperone is the dreaded Headhunter who got her into this interstellar mess in the first place, Lucie accepts because she has no choice — the Headhunter shoots her and carries her body off to Orbis.

So begins Orbis, the opener to the third series. It’s a highly imaginative break from the first two seasons, and shows Lucie truly maturing as a character. The third season of adventures goes in for much more horror than the previous series, with entries like The Beast of Orlok, The Scapegoat and the two-part finale featuring the Eight Legs from Metebelis III, but here on Orbis the story is pure, undisguised science fiction that Alan Barnes and Nicholas Briggs use to investigate the very real gap between human values and Time Lord values. For Lucie only six months has passed since she saw The Doctor fall to his doom on Karn. For The Doctor it has been 600 years. Messrs. Barnes and Briggs play on this theme throughout by introducing the Keltons whose life spans are to Lucie’s as Lucie’s is to The Doctor’s. It’s both a witty and sobering on how life is more meaningful when there is less of it.

By the end of this third series, Sheridan Smith’s star as an actress had begun its ascent to the stratosphere. By the time the fourth series debuted in December 2009, she had been cast as Joey Ross in Jonathan Creek, Brandy in Benidorm, and a talent mentor in Over the Rainbow, as well as finishing her third season of Grownups. Her big break would soon come when she’d become protagonist Elle Woods in the musical version of Legally Blonde on the West End.

This meant the producers at Big Finish would have to wrap up the Lucie Miller adventures and scramble for a replacement. One solution was to fill the gap with companions who had already traveled with the Eighth Doctor in other media: in the audio adventures but also in Doctor Who novels, comic books, and comic strips. This turned into the charming four-part anthology, The Company of Friends

I really enjoyed The Company of Friends. Bringing The Doctor’s companions from comics and prose into audio was liberating. I think by then the Charley adventures and even the few Lucie Millers that had been broadcast could have used a healthy contrast. Charley and Lucie are completely different in many respects but they’re still both 19 year old girls. So it’s nice to have Benny, who’s a mom with a “responsible” life put in an appearance. It made me think about Evelyn Smythe’s adventures with the Sixth Doctor and how older women have a different relationship to the idea of adventure. I suspect the same would be true of an older male companion, too. It was the case with Ian Chesterton, certainly. I suppose it’s true of Donna Noble, though I don’t view her as particularly old (though older than Rose or Martha or Amy or Clara or Bill).

With the younger companions, the journey is different. They don’t know much about the world anyway. They have no history they fight against, not on any real scale. By contrast, The Doctor has nothing but history. The teacher-student relationship is always present. With the older companions it’s about sharing experiences as friends. The Doctor’s relationship with Fitz is somewhere in between. Fitz is not a young woman nor a particularly mature man. Yet it’s clear The Doctor adores him, despite his clownish persona — or perhaps because of it. Fitz appears in 55 novels with The Doctor, so it’s obvious that relationship is deeply meaningful.

Hearing Matt di Angelo give voice to Fitz for the first time is refreshing. The story too is wonderful, as Fitz becomes a sort of Inspector Clouseau running around in the land of Doctor Who. I love this kind of comedy and in particular the way it takes the mickey out of the grandiose, interstellar heroics of The Doctor.

Izzy’s Story goes for a different kind of comedy with even greater success. Izzy is every comic book geek in the world rolled into one, with a head full of sci-fi books and fantasy illustrations. She provides a kind of “meta” level, if you will, for Doctor Who stories, a quality that none of The Doctor’s other companions have at all with the possible exception of Bill Potts (who understands what a “mind wipe” is because she’s seen it in the movies). So when Izzy and The Doctor have one of the greatest interstellar adventures ever, what’s the treasure to be had? Why, the rarest comic book in the history of the universe, of course, the final issue of Aggrotron!

Jemima Rooper gives the role of Izzy her all and it’s pitch perfect. After listening to it, I felt like I could listen to Izzy & The Doctor adventure together forever — something I rarely feel about the younger companions.

The linchpin of The Company of Friends however is the final story: Mary’s Story. After years of promises dating all the way back to Storm Warning, The Doctor finally gets to travel with Mary Shelley. It’s surreal and disorienting in the extreme, and while a perfectly decent story, it’s more important for giving The Doctor a new travelling companion to tide the listeners over until the folks at Big Finish could figure out what to do with the Eighth Doctor. Mary Shelley as voiced by Julie Cox fills in nicely for three full episodes: The Silver Turk, The Witch from the Well, and Army of Death. I’m most partial to The Silver Turk because everything in it seems still new, helped by seeing everything through Mary’s adventurous eyes. By the time of Army of Death however, Mary is already weary, bruised and battered and politely returns to her life as a soon to be famous novelist.

Army of Death marks the last appearance of the Eighth Doctor in the “main range” of monthly releases from Big Finish. That was five and a half years ago. In the meanwhile, Paul McGann had simply become too busy to keep up with the commitments of monthly installments. But the Eighth Doctor Adventures with Lucie Miller would continue to air on BBC radio. The public obviously still wanted more of the Eighth Doctor. So Big Finish took the lesson from the Lucie Miller adventures and refined it with ambition: they would work again with the limited series format, only this time instead of a series of anthology stories, they would create a long, novelistic story in sixteen parts, each installment interconnected with the others.

That series would become my very favorite Doctor Who audio drama: Dark Eyes. But that’s for another time.

****

Filed under Radio

Omar Willey was born at St. Frances Cabrini Hospital in Seattle and grew up near Lucky Market on Beacon Avenue. He believes Seattle is the greatest city on Earth and came to this conclusion by travelling much of the Earth. He is a junior member of Lesser Seattle and, as an oboist, does not blow his own trumpet. Contact him at omar [at] seattlestar [dot] net