Review by Jacob Licklider
So, the final trilogy of the main range in 2014 was a Sixth Doctor and Peri trilogy set after The Trial of a Time Lord. Named (mainly by myself and my mutual) as the Salty Peri trilogy as the relationship between Peri and the Doctor was established to be rocky at best. They’re still friends, but the abandonment issues and the interference from the Time Lords changed the dynamic drastically. Sadly, after the trilogy the next stories to feature Peri would be firmly placed before The Trial of a Time Lord, but this month saw the release of The Sixth Doctor and Peri: Volume One, a box set follow up to the 2014 trilogy with four hour-long stories produced for the 20th anniversary of Doctor Who at Big Finish. These four stories are from five writers who obviously have a love for this TARDIS team, all of whom have lovingly recreated the atmosphere of that trilogy through unique tales.
The first release brings back the writers of the acclaimed Seventh Doctor story ‘LIVE 34′, James Parsons and Andrew Stirling-Brown with The Headless Ones. The Headless Ones is a title that sounds camp and sensationalist and going into this story that is almost what you get. Parsons and Stirling-Brown take the Doctor and Peri into the 1800’s in a story that pastiches the type of adventure serial you would find in that time period. The setting is Africa where a British expedition is attempting to find the B’lemyae, a savage tribe which has killed the natives and according to the stories have no heads. The first half-hour of this story plays out pretty straightforward as an exhibition which does have the effect of making a lot of it feel slower and slightly more difficult to get into. There are a couple of twists early on here and there with the Doctor and Peri being involved, however, much of it is a paint by numbers story. The twist about the titular Headless Ones, while a bit obvious, does re-contextualise much of the story and lead to a climax that is more interesting than the initial trajectory of the story would lead the listener to believe.
Much like LIVE 34, The Headless Ones is in the same vein of political commentary and derision about the world, this time as a commentary on the past. British colonialism gets its takedown from Parsons and Stirling-Brown from a surface level reading, yet looking deeper the story is actually about how people and societies can change over time. It’s a lofty commentary for a story that only runs for an hour, but the writers mostly succeed in making it work. Deirdre Mullins is the standout of the guest cast; playing to her usual role of strong Victorian type, with her character of Amanda Latimer being the socialite in charge of the expedition. Mullins works off Colin Baker and Nicola Bryant well and at points does steal the show. The Headless Ones is one of those stories that can be peeled back for layers once you get into it; though it’s dragged down by a slightly weaker first half and a lack of time to fully explore its ideas. 8/10.
Jacqueline Rayner is one of those writers whom I always find exciting when a story is released with her name attached. She contributes the second story to this box set, ‘Like’, and the first story to really focus on Peri as a main character. Like The Headless Ones before it, ‘Like’ is a story full of commentary on society, this time on social media and how it has taken over people’s lives. This is not to say Rayner goes into a rant against social media, instead focusing on crafting a society where social media has become the lives of the people not just the hyperbolic taking over their lives that many will say. Rusina, an Earth colony, has a governor who has dictated that a social media presence is what will be used as currency and what determines your status in society. Want to get into university? Then you need a certain number of likes and subscribers for that to work. Cameras follow you every second of every day and upload to your own feed for others to like and interact with, while dislikes cause physical pain and discomfort, even to the point of killing if they are too bad. This society of social media consumerism is the front for a fascist regime oppressing a group of aliens. Writing that out in a review and you notice just how topical a story like this is in today’s society where people follow social movements on social media without actually contributing to said movements and the changes to society they propose. Peri finds herself forced into the role of a model, using her good looks and the Doctor’s brains to amass enough followers to speak with the governor of the colony.
Bryant is excellent in this role: Peri is portrayed as unsure of herself while the Doctor has every faith that she will do fine when she gains an audience with the governor. While Rayner’s script is tackling difficult subject matter, there are plenty of tongue-in-cheek references and jokes (including some excellent digging at The Twin Dilemma) helping the listener settle in before revealing a lot of the dark underbelly of the society. ‘Like’ is also a story that doesn’t necessarily have the happiest of endings; things have improved, but they still have a long way to go before the society recovers; something the Doctor and Peri cannot provide. It’s a story that makes you think and leaves you questioning your own actions online after listening which is one of the best things a story can do. 10/10.
The Vanity Trap is this set’s penultimate adventure from new author Stuart Manning. Manning is perhaps most well known for his work on the Radio Times posters for Series 8, 9, and 10 and it is a pleasant surprise that as well as an artist there is writing talent there too. The Vanity Trap is all about Myrna Kendal a washed up film star who has a secret; an unfinished film which she refuses to discuss. When the Doctor lands the TARDIS right in the middle of a chat show interview, it becomes clear that Kendal knows the Doctor and Peri from the set of that previous film, prompting a trip back in time to discover just what happened on that film set all those years ago. The unravelling mystery allows Manning to explore some of the darker aspects of Hollywood and what it would do to its actresses in particular for the sake of beauty and stardom. It’s wrapped in a science fiction story, but the darkness is there with Ryan Forde Iosco’s Dr. Karp being the stand in for many of the quack doctors who would keep actresses on drugs to keep them docile for the camera.
Much of The Vanity Trap is a story that plays to the strength of the audio medium with twists coming because the story is an audio. Also in the guest cast is Rosie Baker, the daughter of Colin Baker, who holds her own with her father’s boisterous portrayal of the Doctor. Baker’s character is much meeker than the Doctor and fades into the background of many scenes, though that is fitting for some of the reveals. Colin Baker is also clearly in his element among the garishness of Hollywood and is clearly delighting in playing the detective with Peri as his plucky sidekick throughout. If there was one complaint it is that there are points where Peri just feels like a sidekick. Manning does balance that by adding in questions about where Peri is going with the Doctor as this is the second time she’s travelled with him, but overall this one’s a love letter. 9/10.
The set closes with Nev Fountain’s Conflict Theory, where absurdism reigns. The plot is the Doctor and Peri seeking therapy for their strained relationship from a facility of robotic ‘Sigmund Freuds’, played by David Sibley. The absurdism is added to with both the Doctor and Peri serving as unreliable narrators as they relay their experiences to their own robotic Freud. The Doctor has found himself to be more protective of Peri since her return and Peri believes he is treating her like a child. Fountain goes to great lengths to change the characterisation between the two depending on who is narrating events at the time. Baker and Bryant both give excellent performances by flipping between the three versions of their characters (the actual versions, the Doctor’s recollected versions, and Peri’s recollected versions). In each version of events there is a chemistry between the two characters which cannot be denied as they play off each other’s strengths and personality quirks, eating up the clever script from Fountain. There is also psychoanalysis of both characters which is deep and undercutting for them both, most notably an analysis that the Doctor never said goodbye to Dodo because she was essentially too innocent (she wasn’t in danger while his other companions were, she didn’t even deserve a goodbye in the Doctor’s mind).
Like the other three stories in this set, Conflict Theory relies on several twists (the first going against the premise of having the real Sigmund Freud in the story), and each are executed brilliantly. As much of the story relies on the twists for the story’s impact, they will not be discussed in detail here, but rest assured that they are cleverly set up and executed over the hour and Conflict Theory ends with an excellent final dialogue between the Doctor and Peri. 10/10.
Overall, The Sixth Doctor and Peri: Volume One is one of those first volumes that has high potential for a series of adventures. It presents four unique and excellent stories to the listener and should be moved to the top of every listeners ‘to buy’ list; especially those who enjoyed the 2014 ‘Salty Peri’ trilogy. Baker and Bryant knock it out of the park, giving their characters’ relationship a further push towards the future. The biggest shame would be if this volume one would join the ranks of other volume ones that were never granted volume twos. 9.25/10.