Review: Doctor Who – Wicked Sisters

Review by Michael Goleniewski

The Doctor is recruited by Leela for a vital mission on behalf of the Time Lords. Together, they must track down and destroy two god-like beings whose extraordinary powers now threaten all of space and time. Their names are Abby and Zara…

1.1 The Garden of Storms –

‘Garden of Storms’ is an interesting start to a special Big Finish release ominously titled “Wicked Sisters” bringing the worlds of Doctor Who and the Grace together for the first time in an awfully long time. A lot has changed since the last time these characters met in 2009 including Abby and Zara’s full spinoff series “Graceless” which was well received by many fans but not particularly by this reviewer. This is far from the most exciting set to come out of Big Finish this year but it is one with a fair amount of potential which could be exploited if executed well.

‘Storm’ as a first story certainly makes a strong go of it, serving as a nice blend of Doctor Who storytelling and the quieter maturity that Graceless was known for in its better moments. The setup by Simon Guerrier is a very intriguing one leading to a fascinating soundscape where a new menace literally made of smoke and mirrors is taking advantage of chaos and panic for its own ends. But beyond the visceral nature of what is clearly meant to be the arc of the release is a horrifying premise that has been done before but not quite in such a fancifully bureaucratic way. There is a brilliant juxtaposition of corporate horror and whimsical fantasy with the setting and direction by Lisa Bowerman that really stands out and exemplifies what the set is obviously trying to be. It turns out to be more driving and interesting than it frankly has any right to be and both threats are very engaging to listen to and hear play out over the course of its runtime.

The cast is strong enough to match this increased sense of engagement. Peter Davison‘s Fifth Doctor and Louise Jameson’s Leela together are a great grounded presence in exemplifying change in a more realistic fashion while the two girls Abby and Zara (played wonderfully once again by Ciara Janson and Laura Doddington) are more than content to use their own formidable supernatural powers bit by bit. While Janson and Doddington’s performances at times sort of blend into each other in terms of their vocal inflections and energy, they still get some strong moments to themselves to establish their personalities and who they have individually grown into. The way both teams go about handling and managing the effects of both strategies for change is nicely touched on narratively and it’s this difference that’s going to make the most obvious impact with the climax’s massive cliffhanger into the next part of the story to come.

‘Garden of Storms’ then is a very surprising start to the “Wicked Sisters” crossover release with a strong hook in the immediate and the long-term narrative that has the potential to capitalize on the best of both worlds from each series involved. It’s very much the first story of a trilogy with all the standard tropes, unresolved threads, and concepts therein and thus will depend on the other two installments in its respective set to see if what’s established here will pay off. But by itself, it is a strong audio with good performances, a great soundscape, and a respective premise that promises to lead into some fascinating adventures to come in the rest of the set. — 8 / 10

1.2 The Moonrakers –

‘Moonrakers’ sees the TARDIS team and the Tracer girls separated across time and space from each other. While Leela and Abby are forced to reckon with the events from the previous story, the Doctor and Zara become stranded on the surface of Earth’s moon in the future, discovering an odd group of Sontarans in the process working on a very different sort of project but are about to come into conflict with a group of human colonists nearby threatened by a lack of resources and energy. It’s another surprising story that narrative-wise isn’t too engaging on the surface. From the minute both pairs arrive on the lunar surface, it’s fairly easy to guess what the core plot is going to be and it goes in many expected places. But what makes Guerrier’s script stand out is the interesting dynamics and details hiding underneath that neither series (Doctor Who or Graceless) has ever really done before.

In particular, the script boasts a very unusual take on Sontarans far from their usual warlike state and focusing on simple matters of art and aesthetics. Plotwise, it does feel like a matter of forced circumstance as it’s made clear they do want to fight; they simply don’t have the means to do so at least at first. But it prompts some uniquely hilarious bits of dialogue and humour in and amongst their usual frustrations and war-mongering which with these monsters is always more than welcome and Dan Starkey is as great as ever performance-wise as another Strax-like Sontaran leader. The writing also delivers some great character dynamics between the main cast in the forced shakeup and separation built on from the prior adventure. It’s nice to see Peter Davison’s Doctor and Laura Doddington’s Zara get some good time on their own together as actors and as characters and Louise Jameson and Ciara Janson are a surprisingly dynamic pair together in getting things done albeit with very different ideas and approaches on how to go about it.

It also must be said that the soundscape and direction by Lisa Bowerman are especially exceptional here. The lunar landscape is beautifully haunting like something out of a space documentary and there’s a weird sense of awe to the whole audio helped along by an ethereal score and soundscape. It helps to alleviate a bit of the boredom brought on by Leela and Abby’s forgettable side quest of helping a group of humans build their forces against what they see as an invading threat which ends up overriding the more interesting elements of the narrative with the Doctor and Zara as they engage with the Sontaran forces and manipulate the situation into a somewhat peaceable outcome. In the process, however, the threat of Abby and Zara as a force to be reckoned with is pushed to the breaking point culminating in a final line of dialogue that ties everything together and sets up the final story of the set in a tantalizing way.

‘Moonrakers’ then is another major surprise of a story that builds on its predecessor in the ‘Wicked Sisters’ set while also working some very unique angles and story threads that are very welcome and engaging. In splitting up the core group in a very different way and throwing some fascinating situational kinks into the works for one of the more over-the-top villains in all of Who canon, Simon Guerrier once again shows his dedication towards uniting main series and spinoff together and exploiting the potential that such a crossover is capable of. Hauntingly humorous and outlandishly familiar, it’s a great story for these characters and the Sontarans themselves and a huge standout for both. — 9 / 10

1.3 The People Made of Smoke

‘People Made of Smoke’ sees the return of the titular foes last seen in the first story, now given an explanation and more details as a presence and foe that directly ties into the main question of the set itself. The script once again by Simon Guerrier teases if Abby and Zara’s powers are really worth the cost the whole way through and the answers it delivers come in a massive fight for the future that takes an extreme toll on everyone involved.  The first half of the story is comprised of a slow murder investigation that turns into a quest to save the world that’s loud and explosive. And yet narratively it’s far less interesting than its predecessors using tropes from ‘Time of the Doctor’ of all places with none of the weight or impact. The soundscape is also a bit less novel this time around especially with the smoke monsters themselves being great in concept but boring in execution. Their voices, in particular, are really hard to understand in places coming off as a loud roar and it’s really boisterous and at times very distracting from the main drama. 

Speaking of which, the writing once again sees multiple different methods of change once again compared and contrasted except this time the Doctor is more in the middle of things while Leela is mostly carrying the dramatic moral high ground for the argument all by herself. It’s Jameson’s character who once again proves to be the grounded skeptic of the group but we do get a bit of her vengeful side as well as her remorseful emotion when she inadvertently makes a big mistake that puts Ciara Janson’s Abby and Laura Doddington’s Zara once again into the spotlight. But it’s Davison’s Fifth Doctor himself who proves to have the most lasting impact on what’s going on with a bold plan that places himself as the lynchpin for one final act of salvation that ends the Graceless story proper seemingly for good this time. The final moments are a bit of a copout all things considered but it does what it needs to in cementing both an ending for Abby and Zara as well as another potential beginning should Big Finish ever feel the need to return to them. 

‘People Made of Smoke’ concludes ‘Wicked Sisters’ on a more forgettable note allowing itself to sort of fizzle out like an explosive but ultimately smaller firecracker. It’s more predictable and much less novel than the other stories that comprise the set and by the time it’s over, it honestly leaves you a bit exhausted to where you are almost honestly glad that it’s over. But for fans of Graceless who have followed the journeys of Abby and Zara up to this point, it’s a somewhat satisfying finale, and Doctor Who fans certainly won’t have much to complain about in the scale, energy, and drive brought to the table by both Davison and Jameson. It’s more or less cemented in this reviewer’s mind that Graceless as a series is one that’s most likely worth it for some fans but not really for him and if there is more to come after this, there’s probably not much chance of a listen or a revisitation of other stories with these two. But for what it is, this is a fine finale to a better than expected set that’s very much worth the purchase for something different and more unique than the usual Big Finish faire.  — 7 / 10

OVERALL: 8 / 10

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