Review by Jacob Licklider
Old Friends ended the first series of Ninth Doctor Adventures with a genuinely brilliant series finale that felt like a lead in to Rose, something my review of that set had some pushback since it had already been announced that Series 2 would essentially be continuing where Series 1 left off with the Ninth Doctor still travelling alone. Now Series 1 spent quite a bit of time developing the idea that this was one continuous series, including by designing the covers to mimic the single DVD releases of Series 1 of the show. Series 2 seems to be less a full series with a central character arc for the Ninth Doctor and more of a series of themed box sets with new styles of cover art, this first one being from the wonderful Caroline Tankersley, with the theme of going Back to Earth. It’s three stories set at various points in Earth’s history, mainly in the past ranging from the early 17th century to the early 1990s, with one story having some pieces in the modern day, but not really. All three of the authors here do an excellent job of taking their piece of Earth and doing something interesting with it, overcoming my initial hesitation of going into a set not really following up the character development of the Ninth Doctor within the first few minutes of the first story.
And the first story is a fascinating character study with a very small cast from Robert Valentine. Station to Station on the surface is another fairy tale inspired story from Valentine, something that is clearly a thread through his writing that some seem to not mesh with, perhaps because of criticisms of certain eras of Doctor Who come from a fairy tale tone that isn’t effectively used by other writers. Valentine is kind of the polar opposite, drawing influence from several stories and an understanding of what makes fairy tales work, mainly the horror, and blending that with his own experiences of horror stories. Every story Valentine has written has the atmosphere of being a little off, and I mean that as a good thing, it’s almost out of phase with reality which makes the fantastical elements work and that’s why Station to Station works. It’s a story that has some genuine science fiction elements but Valentine cloaks it with the fairy tale, giving the main villain the name of the Grimminy-Grew, played by Ian Bartholomew who isn’t quite hamming it up, but there is a sense of going over the top to make the character stand out. There is also a pseudo-companion, Saffron, played by Indigo Griffiths who is essentially an outsider who gets swept up in the adventure accidentally due to the Grew’s hijinks. Griffiths and Eccleston have excellent chemistry and Saffron’s arc is essentially building up courage to tell her parents who she is going to marry which is a very human thing to be afraid of built around insecurities. As the plot develops Valentine is also great at building a climax to the story that while relying on fairy tale tropes doesn’t fall into the realms of cliches, it’s a wonderful sequence where Eccleston and Bartholomew just fly off each other. Valentine also references Lungbarrow, and who would I be if I didn’t mention that?
Like Valentine before her, Sarah Grochala’s The False Dimitry is a perfect example of her writing style. Grochala has excelled at telling historical and pseudo-historical stories, and this is no exception, using a period of Russian history and disputes about succession as a point to tell a story reflecting quite a bit of modern day politics and populism. This was a point that after two Tsar deaths, there were three people claiming to be the rightful heir and this story sees the Doctor in the middle of this dispute, eventually revealing that there are aliens at work attempting to take over the planet through this dispute. The aliens are where a lot of Grochala’s messaging against right wing populism come to the forefront, the aliens are a species that take over through laziness and exploitation of fear, making their enemies see what they fear most and will react to with hostility. There may be a few lines of dialogue where Grochala gets too close to just spelling out the message by inserting certain pieces of modern rhetoric, but her use of villains that use fear and the suggestion to turn that fear back on those attacking others makes an interesting proposal. The mob that forms from the Russians that fall under the aliens’ influence are not depicted as evil or even explicitly idiotic for falling for something but are still examined to be at fault for becoming complacent in the promises that the popular Tsar candidate (the alien) partially due to an already bad situation especially among the lower classes. It makes for fascinating examinations with the Doctor as an outsider just trying to stop it and ensure history is on the right track, there is rage at the aliens but that rage is going against the manipulation of the masses. Grochala’s always interesting and The False Dimitry exemplifies this with some history most listeners won’t know.
Back to Earth closes with Aud Lang Syne, Tim Foley’s examination of finding purpose in life after a poor situation. Foley chronicles a family’s visits to a manor on successive New Year’s Eves starting near the end of Margaret Thatcher’s time as Prime Minister, a time of increased conservatism which arguably hasn’t entirely gone away, and going along several years. The Doctor is acting as caretaker of the house, drawing Mandy Litherland and her family to the house due to some interference in time from a creature that has created time tunnels to various times of this house. This means that there are glimpses into the troubles of other people, however brief, who have inhabited this house, paralleling the problems of Mandy and her family. Mandy, played by Leah Brotherhead, is stuck with no job and no real prospects because of the economic and political situation of the time, and the trips to this house are essentially what has been getting her through, despite being once a year. Her Auntie Sue, played by Hayley Tamaddon, has been travelling and slowly falling in love with Frank, played by Greig Johnson, while Wendy Craig’s Great Aunt Bette is critical of the rest of the family. This is a script that is top notch at character interactions while using the time travel elements to give the listener what they need to know. Helen Goldwyn’s direction needs to be mentioned here as it is responsible for bringing the script to life in such a way that television techniques for the passage of time have been adapted amazingly into audio to signify the years going by. Eccleston and Brotherhead have several genuinely touching moments as the story creeps towards a climax all about family accepting one another in their lives and coming together because their differences are generally petty. It’s the jewel in a box set that is already a crown.
The Ninth Doctor Adventures: Back to Earth manages to open the second series of this range with near perfection. There is this sense of new energy to each of the stories as all three authors play to their strengths and somehow things top the previous set which was already a very high bar to clear. Eccleston is on form and creates relationships with the rest of the cast, going so far as making the listener want a new companion to just join the TARDIS and continue who they are. 10/10.
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Review: The Ninth Doctor Adventures – Old Friends
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