Review by Jacob Licklider
With David Tennant joining Big Finish in 2016, and the recent return of Christopher Eccleston in a series of four box sets, the New Series representation at Big Finish increased; yet Matt Smith’s Eleventh Doctor has thus far been relegated to Short Trips and The Eleventh Doctor Chronicles due to only Alex Kingston’s participation in Big Finish. However, an announcement of a two volume spin-off following the Auton Rory Williams while he guards the Pandorica in a now deleted universe brings Arthur Darvill back to the worlds of Doctor Who in a release that nobody was quite expecting. Rory Williams is one of those characters which you really don’t know what to expect, often taking a back seat in episodes and only given companion status by the start of Darvill’s second series in the role. Rory is essentially comic relief and on the surface relegated to supporting roles, so The Lone Centurion is something which doesn’t actually have anything to go on in terms of what it can accomplish, complicated by the fact that as an Auton Rory is more difficult to kill as this takes place in between The Pandorica Opens and The Big Bang. The premise is intriguing: the Pandorica has gone missing meaning that Amy has gone missing, and Rory is attempting to find it, shenanigans ensue.
The tone is set pretty quickly with Gladiator by David Llewellyn, essentially doing a riff on the perceived tropes of a gladiator in the Roman Coliseum and the death of Julius Caesar. The opening third or so is where Rory is fighting as a gladiator, “killing” other gladiators (in actuality giving them the opportunity to survive by either disposing of their bodies or “dying” before getting up again because he cannot be killed). This gets Rory in the employ of Caesar as a food taster and general bodyguard while the soothsayer Tasitus, played by Terry Molloy, warns him to beware the Kalends of June. Essentially there is a murder attempt on Caesar’s life as he plays in a production of Greek theatre while altering the script and making himself a diva. Joseph Tweedale plays the Caesar as essentially ineffectual; cheating on Augusta with men and women, kind of just lazing around while Augusta secretly is running the empire. What is most noticeable about Gladiator, however, is actually Rob Harvey’s score which uses a number of non-traditional instruments for a story set in Roman times including the use of an electric guitar in the theme music and several recurring cues for characters and ideas. It does intrude a few times and the repetition doesn’t quite work between every transition, but it is a great score and one of the few ones that is memorable. If anything is kind of weak with the script, it’s that in this opening episode Arthur Darvill takes a backseat to the instances of comedy and drama playing out around him. It’s a fine performance, but he doesn’t actually get a chance to shine as a character which does seem reminiscent of the Matt Smith era where he didn’t get to shine. Still, it is a great start to a set that really had no expectations going in. 8/10.
Newcomer Sarah Ward gives Rory his best comedic performance in The Unwilling Assassin, set in a time where Augusta, played by Joanna Van Kampen, has taken over as Caesar and set Rory as the official assassin, something of course he would never do. Like Gladiator before it, The Unwilling Assassin is a comedy of errors where essentially the scene in The Romans where Vicki accidentally poisons Nero, but dialled up to eleven and with Rory as the one in charge of poisoning. Ward’s script uses liberal use of Chekov’s gun in the eventual conclusion as the victims Rory is sent to kill end up not actually fleeing Rome bar one slave, and just living their lives, eventually culminating in Augusta demanding Rory’s assassination. Robyn Holdaway as the Chief Spy, Decima, and Joanna Van Kampen’s Augusta provide this brilliant double act with Holdaway providing this snivelled wretch of a woman in their performance while Van Kampen’s Augusta becomes increasingly more camp as everything goes wrong and she convinces herself that there is conspiracy meant to kill her. Arthur Darvill’s comedic abilities come to the forefront here as Rory is just increasingly confused and becoming clever to try and get people away alive and safe. Rory becomes exasperated as he is just asked to kill more and more people for no reason eventually leading to the return of Terry Molloy’s Tasitus in an incredibly comedic climax. Really this is the highlight of the set as it doesn’t take itself too seriously, but manages to tell the listener a lot about Roman society. The set succeeds because it isn’t concerned with historic accuracy and Ward’s debut Big Finish script is an excellent debut. 9/10.
The set concludes with I, Rorius by Jacqueline Rayner, and with any Rayner script it’s actually a very emotional drama tucked inside what looks like a comedy. Taking its title from I, Claudius, Rory is the Roman Emperor and spends much of this episode just trying to find some peace and quiet and getting the Pandorica back. He’s also essentially trying to stop people from finding out that he isn’t a human being and is immortal, so he could be looking at being the Roman Emperor. Mina Anwar guest stars as the mother of someone whom she wishes to go up in the world, while Rory is the Emperor who simply cannot have his own peace. His relationship with the slave Anna, played by Sam Beart, is also really where I, Rorius works at its best, through these moments of reflection and conversation. Darvill’s performance is incredible as he gives Rory this uncertainty and weight as he is so close to Amy, building her statues and finding comfort in speaking with her (even if she isn’t there). Rory is a character built on insecurity and not being suited for a role of power, not because he’s power mad, but because he doesn’t know what to do with power. This means that Rory should be a character who is given power and will eventually make everything right. Scott Handcock’s direction shines here with the script being a typical Jacqueline Rayner script. 8/10.
Overall, The Lone Centurion is a set which was released with no real expectations and came out as essentially a sleeper hit exploring a different type of companion. It doesn’t take itself too seriously while giving us some interesting insights into a companion which had little previous exploration. 8.33/10.
Download/buy here: https://www.bigfinish.com/releases/v/the-lone-centurion-volume-01-2305