Review by Jacob Licklider
Raise your hand if you weren’t expecting Christopher Eccleston to come back to Doctor Who? Okay, whoever doesn’t have your hand up is clearly lying, because it was one of those things that nobody ever thought would happen, and even more so, would happen so soon, but here we are, May 2021, and the first of four Ninth Doctor Box sets from Big Finish Productions are out in the world. Ravagers was written and directed by Nicholas Briggs showing just how much enthusiasm he had for the first Doctor he worked with on television when Doctor Who came back, and structured like a three part miniseries. This format is actually really good for Doctor Who, as single hour long stories which aren’t connected in any way becomes incredibly difficult to properly develop a new setting and new characters all in a single episode. While each episode has its own title (Sphere of Freedom, Cataclysm, and Food Fight) as this is a miniseries, this review will be looking as Ravagers as one continuous story, which is the best way to look at this box set anyway as each episode ends in a cliffhanger before the final episode opens up the series of box sets to what is clearly going to become a new era of Ninth Doctor adventures.
Obviously, the clearest place to start is the star of the set, and the standout, Christopher Eccleston as the Doctor. Fandom seems to have this issue where Eccleston is portrayed as one of the darker Doctors, and while there were most definitely times during Series 1 where the dark persona came through, Dalek and Father’s Day come to mind, his characterisation was a mix of dark and humour masking a darker persona. Ravagers portrays the Ninth Doctor as masking his grief over the end of the Time War with humour, with only one or two moments coming across as prickly with that dark shining through. This is actually a really good way to write the character, as this takes place long before Rose and is clearly being done in an attempt to have the four sets have some character arc to get us close to meeting Rose, as Billie Piper has not been announced as coming back for these sets and this set introduces a new companion. While some listeners have claimed Eccleston is phoning in his performance, that simply isn’t the case, he’s just highlighting some different aspects of the character that aren’t always at the forefront of fan perspective. It is a joy to hear him back in the role, even if there are still bad memories from working on the show and there is this sense of longing in the performance, looking to find some sort of home that he doesn’t actually find here. The Doctor may find a companion here, but he is still in the stage of shoving the Time War to the background and not mentioning the destruction of his home outright. The stories also put the Doctor at the centre of the action as Ravagers puts him up against creatures that wish to devour the universe and an evil corporation that placates humanity a la The Long Game, though one that reflects the world of 2021 better than Russell T. Davies did in Series 1.
Camilla Beeput joins the ranks of Big Finish’s audio original companions with her introduction here as the character of Nova. Nova as a character is perhaps a weak point in the set. Beeput does give an excellent performance and she has plenty of chemistry with Eccleston, and Briggs avoids the Davies and Moffat trap of making the companion the most important person in the universe, but as this is a story dealing with time changing quite a bit, it means that Nova as a character comes across as a bit weak. It is not the worst introduction for a companion, there is a personality there and a backstory of being a chef from the future which is an interesting brief, but because this is a story told out of order the listener doesn’t get enough of who Nova actually is. She’s a great gateway into the society of Sphere of Freedom. The human villain, Audrey played by Jayne McKenna, actually gets more development as the set essentially chronicles her rise to and fall from power over Immersive Games and Sphere of Freedom as the Ravagers come ever closer and closer.
There are plenty of twists and turns and Briggs evokes perhaps his best Doctor Who work, Creatures of Beauty with Audrey’s plotline. The depth of the villain here is great as there easily could have been a trap of making a villain who was standard evil capitalist, but there is a humanity and understanding beneath the surface that makes things work better than a surface level character. The big problem with Ravagers is that the first episode in particular is incredibly slow and the plot itself plays it safe with tried and tested Doctor Who tropes. Sphere of Freedom is an episode that has a breakneck pace when really easing us into the world should have been the order of the day from Briggs, as several scenes and characters feel like they are cut short, not giving performers like Dan Starkey and Jamie Parker enough to do in their introduction. It is rectified in the second and third episodes, the third in particular being excellent and almost carrying the box set by itself.
Overall, Ravagers is a box set that should be approached as a trilogy of tried and true Doctor Who premises, telling a story from a writer who can write a story that is staple. Briggs’ direction is also excellent and clearly the enthusiasm from all involved in bringing the Ninth Doctor back shines through. The big drawback here is that there is a lot more they could do as playing it safe on a release which was sure to sell left the listeners wanting more. Still, go and give this a listen just to hear a Doctor we haven’t heard from in over 15 years as there’s still the standard Big Finish charm. 7/10.