Review by Michael Goleniewski
Big Finish’s Christmas release for 2020 sees the Seventh Doctor and Ace hoping to land in Edinburgh for the holidays but instead coming to the small village of Coylumbridge which is eerily quiet and empty. They soon meet an old friend in the area, retired Brigadier Alistair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart, who is looking into a rather ominous presence on the nearby mountain of Ben MacDui that’s causing hikers to go missing and/or be hospitalised from paranoia and delusion. Naturally while Ace immediately takes the initiative in climbing the peak with a new friend, the Doctor and the Brig stay behind in the comfort of the nearby inn to learn more and wait for backup support. But soon, everyone will be up on the mountain navigating the trials of the summit while searching for answers surrounding the mysterious presence waiting for them on the windy plateau…..
‘The Grey Man of the Mountain’ is a far more subtle holiday listen on the surface compared to 2019’s enjoyably blatant Sixth Doctor anthology ‘Blood on Santa’s Claw‘. Lizbeth Myes script is a very measured affair taking each moment slowly but with methodical intent and (intentionally or not) lifting inspiration from an early Main Range release ‘Spectre of Lanyon Moor’ with a similar premise but a different Doctor. It’s certainly not going to be everyone’s cup of tea and pacing-wise it’s at times extremely slow. But it feels appropriate for the kind of narrative Hopley is going for and the minimal plot keeps its surprises close to its chest despite some points being telegraphed as an obvious necessity in moving things forward. The direction also does a great job in keeping the tension of fearful survival amidst the elements very tangible and the soundscape is chilly and well-realised especially with a yuletide Scottish score that really sells the atmosphere and energy of the setting. Really, this is a piece that hinges on the strength of its wintery atmosphere and the biggest twists it has hiding in store, and to that end, it succeeds marvellously with the final act going in a different direction than the premise might lend you to believe. There is also still a lovely element of the season present in the narrative’s heart that shows itself in very unexpected ways by the end that makes it more than worthy of its moniker as a Christmas adventure.
In terms of performances, Sylvester McCoy is good as the Seventh Doctor and Sophie Aldred is fine as Ace with little to really complain about. Neither of them gets any especially outstanding material to work with especially as they’re once again separated for most of the adventure but they’re still nowhere near bad and are as engaging as they’ve ever been as a Doctor/companion team. The biggest standout is Jon Culshaw in his first full cast appearance as the Brigadier outside of the Third Doctor Adventures. His presence is strong but somehow comforting from vocals to displayed character and the writing and dialogue build on strong beats from several past adventures exemplifying his inclination to give a situation the benefit of the doubt given his experiences with everything from planet-devouring demons to even the Loch Ness Monster. It’s Culshaw that’s really going to be the selling point of this story more than anything else and the audio is well worth the price of admission alone just to hear him and McCoy interacting. The side cast on the other hand is a bit hit or miss. Vivien Read is lovely as a warm and enjoyable landlady while Lucy Goldie is great as a content vlogger who forms a wonderful rapport with Sophie Aldred as another sort of maybe love interest. But Youssef Kerkour as scientist/explorer Thaddeus Kanner is an obnoxious red herring with different motivations underneath his blustering character that are about as obvious as they come and the guide that comes along with him again played by Vivien Read isn’t really noteworthy or interesting. They aren’t deal-breakers at all in terms of listening and engagement but a little bit of creativity with their respective roles could’ve kept them from feeling like stereotypes of the laziest sort and lent a lot more to the proceedings as a whole.
When all is said and done, ‘Grey Man of the Mountain‘ is an exceptionally crafted story that’s less of a holiday story and more of a tensely quiet tale that’s less action-packed and more mindfully atmospheric in a way that surprises you but still keeps you calmly invested. It’s not quite the usual Doctor Who fair for the holidays, especially when compared to some of the more over the top of antics of other Christmas-themed audios or even the TV specials. But really, that’s what’s so brilliant about it and it works wonderfully despite some minor flaws in plot and character. With a fantastic setting and great performances from McCoy, Aldred, and especially Culshaw who is so pitch-perfect as the Brigadier that it really feels like Nicholas Courtney is still with us even years after his death, it’s a wonderful Doctor Who audio to get warm and comfy with by the fire on a brisk winter night that engages you just enough to keep you awake but provides enough soothing relief to relax and satisfy after some of the more chaotic adventures of the year.
— 9 / 10