Review by Michael Goleniewski
Victorian London harbours many secrets: alien visitors, strange phenomena and unearthly powers. But a trio of investigators stands ready to delve into such mysteries – the Great Detective, Madame Vastra, her resourceful spouse, Jenny Flint, and their loyal valet, Strax. If an impossible puzzle needs solving, or a grave injustice needs righting, help can be found on Paternoster Row. But even heroes can never escape their past…
Another popular aspect of New Who makes its first series debut with ‘The Paternoster Gang: Heritage 1’. Our investigative trio of Vastra the Silurian, Strax the Sontaran, and Jenny the human maid return to the Whoniverse being given their own series for more adventures in Victorian London. This is a set that many fans have been waiting on bated breath for ever since the official retirement of the ‘Jago and Litefoot‘ series with the death of Trevor Baxter. Set in the same time period with very more or less the same premise to some degree, we got a strong taste of this series in the ‘Eighth of March‘ set a few months ago with ‘Inside Every Warrior’ being one of the strongest stories in that particular boxset. There is a strong hope that this series will fill the hole in Big Finish’s canon left by the Infernal Investigators albeit with some much more unique and alien twists to it. How does this first series hold up and does it work in the same mould while still holding true to it’s newer roots? Let’s take a dive in and find out:
1.1 The Cars That Ate London by Jonathan Morris
The Paternoster series starts off on an odd note with the Gang called to look into a mysterious case involving exploding electric cars, mindless mob violence, and a witness whose mind has been completely emptied of all trace of thought. While Vastra and Jenny investigate the man behind the machine, industrialist Fabian Solak, Strax is working to blend in behind the scenes getting hired in Solak’s factory to find out more behind how things work.
With all that going on, ‘Cars’ flows into a fairly standard adventure despite its rather eye-catching title. It feels like a strong template for things to come more than anything else with plenty of investigations, carriage chases, and strong confrontations with future implications to come. The dialogue is incredibly vibrant and the chemistry between each cast member very strong with the story template translating moderately well into the audio format. It does a great job in working with it’s New Who roots while paying tribute to the past and both the primary and side casts all do very well in the audio format with Stewart, McIntosh, Starkey feeling like they’ve never left their respective roles.
Dan Starkey, in particular, sounds like he’s having a lot of fun walking back into the role of Strax with the best lines and moments in the story by far and there’s also an interesting connection to his race in the story that serves as a nice if meaningless little twist in the adventure. Alan Cox’s Fabian Solak is also a fairly obvious villain but one with a lot of potential behind him serving as a nasty foil for Vastra in particular in his big moments. But the story feels a bit duller than you’d expect with many things feeling like they’ve been repeated before and better in other stories such as ‘Snowmen’ in particular. Jonathan’s Morris’ script and direction are not the strongest he’s ever delivered and there are some noticeably strange bits of editing combined with a boring soundscape that makes things a little harder to follow at times.
All pulled together, ‘Cars That Ate London’ does it’s job well enough with a good cast, fun moments, and even delivering a decent message about the future at the end that feels very appropriate. But as the first story of a major new series, it does feel lacklustre; not exactly wowing you or doing anything different that you haven’t heard or seen before. Maybe that’s for the best being an informal re-establishment of the status quo with this particular cast and team. But considering we already had an incredibly strong starting story in “Inside Every Warrior” earlier in the year that did more or less the same thing with much better results, this one doesn’t quite hold up as well or feel as necessary. It’s not bad as an enjoyable little excursion but it’s not as great or as gripping as it could’ve been.
6 / 10
1.2 A Photograph to Remember by Roy Gill
‘Photograph to Remember’ sees Jenny and Strax encountering a strange otherworldly photography exhibition while enjoying an afternoon off in the city. At the same time, Vastra is working through a string of odd returns from the grave with each dead person acting like a different person altogether compared to when they were alive. They appear to be connected by a thread leading them to Bloomsbury where a familiar-looking trio awaits them with very different intentions of their own. All the while zombie-like creatures begin to invade the streets of London and they are looking to feed and feast on the living.
Compared to the previous story which was fun but lacked any sense of newness to it, Roy Gill’s script manages to be an engaging romp that manages to be a major improvement on the previous story in almost every way. It tackles the spiritualist trends of the day in an interesting way and the stakes feel much higher and more personal especially with the appearance of the Bloomsbury Bunch to hype up the drama in a surprising way. As a concept on paper, the Bunch really shouldn’t work well as well as they do. Being an amoral clone of the heroic team, they represent a trope that has a tendency to fail spectacularly if handled badly. But through some strong performances and interesting twists, they manage to be a fascinating skewed mirror into what the Gang could’ve easily been and they are far more interesting than they have any right to be especially once you hear how the romantic relationship exists among them. Christopher Ryan, Beth Goddard, and Arthur Hughes all make their performances as Stonn, Vella, and Tom very believable in terms of their chemistry and I was genuinely surprised in hoping that we get to see them again in this series at some point.
But while the Bunch is the easy highlight of the adventure, the rest of the story works just as well. The darker premise and soundscape work very nicely and there is more than one satisfying moment that will satisfy fans of Victorian stories and horror. It really takes you back to its roots in the Jago and Litefoot series in a fantastic way and Stewart, McIntosh, and Starkey all continue to be great as the team we know and love.
It’s not a perfect story as the plot struggles a little bit in keeping your interest in places. But on the whole, ‘Photograph to Remember’ is still a great one and honestly, the one we should’ve gotten to start off the series with to begin with. It really feels like the adventure where the Gang feels like they’ve arrived in Big Finish’s canon with more than enough to engage, thrill, and surprise fans both old and new.
9 / 10
1.3 The Ghosts of Greenwich by Paul Morris
On a quiet lazy morning, word reaches the Paternoster Gang of ghosts inhabiting the Greenwich area. What proves interesting though is that some of them appear to be of people still alive at the time while others are of people who appear to be ill, even decaying of age so to speak. Tracing things to the Royal Observatory and some strange phenomena dating back to the 17th century, a dark man is stalking the streets taking the life of his victims and a nasty secret appears to be hidden surrounding the famed Meridian line.
‘Ghosts of Greenwich’ ends the set on another standard and almost middling note. The script by Paul Morris is surprisingly slow for the final story of a set and the pacing is extremely lacklustre. It’s bigger and more intense than the other two stories but the writing is much more about dialogue than detail and there’s a bit of a skew towards humour rather than the drama of the situation and at times that’s very distracting.
But when it does acknowledge the gravity of the threatening situation, it finds moments that work; especially with Jenny and Vastra. While Starkey gets the bulk of the comedic moments and proves to be the weakest link this time, both Catrin Stewart and Neve McIntosh get some stronger moments especially when the climax pushes one to the brink of the death and the other into a confrontation with the story’s malevolent force. Unfortunately, the side cast really doesn’t work or stand out especially with a blatantly obvious to spot villain despite the story trying to dissuade you with an obvious red herring.
In summary, ‘Ghosts of Greenwich’ is fine in general and it deserves more attention probably than this review is giving it. But listening to it feels like a slightly better version of a mediocre Jago and Litefoot climax from their earlier seasons with less of the drive or connecting tissue that made those ones at least a bit more memorable. Diehard fans of the group are still going to lap this one up in the moment and it’s decent as a final story to the set but it’s hard for me to see listeners wanting to come back to this one after it’s over.
6 / 10
FINAL VERDICT: ‘Heritage 1′ is a fair enough start to the Paternoster Gang series with a lot to recommend it. The main cast is great with Catrin Stewart, Neve McIntosh, Dan Starkey all doing amazing with what they are given and there is one highlight adventure that is well worth the price of admission for fans of the Gang and of New Who. But the rest of the set serves to be surprisingly underwhelming with more of a focus on light-hearted comedy rather than interesting drama. A lot of the set lands like the best of the worst of the Jago and Litefoot series and while this isn’t necessarily a bad thing as J&L at it’s worst is still decent listening, it doesn’t feel like it has enough of an identity yet to stand out or do much besides filling the hole left by its predecessor. There also doesn’t seem to be any tangible reason as to why it’s called ‘Heritage’ as a series either and I can’t say I really know what this series is trying to do or where it’s going to go besides the obvious reason. Is it bad listening? Definitely not. New Who fans will certainly enjoy hearing these characters again and getting a taste of their world which is replicated beautifully in audio form. But for longtime fans especially those who were Big Finish listeners before the New Series took off, it’s hard for me to recommend at full price right now. It’s a series that still feels a bit half-baked and one that was pushed out to fill a gap and not do something new or interesting. Hopefully, that changes with the second set coming in November but as of right now after finishing it, ‘Heritage 1’ is a noble disappointment though one with still a lot of potential to explore.
6 / 10
Download/buy here: https://www.bigfinish.com/releases/v/the-paternoster-gang-heritage-1-1983