Review by Jacob Licklider
Disability in Doctor Who has never been it’s strong suit. Perhaps the most prominent disabled character has been Davros, a genocidal maniac who created the Daleks, aka space Nazis whose purpose is exterminating all other life. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s there was a streak of characters with physical disfigurements as a mark of villainy, though by 1989 there was some small instances of complexity with disabled characters in Battlefield and The Curse of Fenric while the New Series has been mostly neutral in disability representation with some exceptions (Under the Lake/Before the Flood comes to mind for deaf representation). Oddly enough the 1960s were more progressive than much of the 1970s and 1980s with serials like Galaxy Four where the monstrous Rills being the good guys and The Dalek Invasion of Earth including a good scientist in a wheelchair who dies at about the halfway point of that story. So, here we are in 2022, and Big Finish Productions are once again making a push ahead of television series in terms of representation by introducing the first disabled Doctor Who companion in Dr. Hebe Harrison in The Sixth Doctor Adventures: Water Worlds, a marine biologist who uses a wheelchair. Like their push with trans representation in Rebecca Root’s Tania Bell, Hebe is played by disabled actress Ruth Madeley and producer Jacqueline Rayner worked closely with Madeley to ensure all three scripts from this set reflected disability representation well.
Hebe’s introduction is provided by Rayner in The Rotting Deep, which stands out as a wonderful character piece above everything else. Rayner’s script doesn’t waste a second of it’s hour long runtime, understanding the need to get character motivation and personality from a companion out as soon as possible, as well as spending time to build a rapport with the Doctor (and in this case Mel). The Rotting Deep is a classic base under siege style story, reminiscent of Fury from the Deep as it is a story with a mysterious threat that doesn’t initially seem to have a human villain at its centre while the supporting cast provide the human conflict. As a story, it’s perfect for introducing a companion with the setting of an oil rig under siege by potential aliens provides Hebe ample opportunity to establish her character. Hebe’s disability is also something that doesn’t necessarily hold her back as a person, but does hold her back physically when the power goes out as it is at the beginning of the story. She’s a character who takes these things in her stride and does everything in her power not to rely on others unnecessarily, but Rayner’s script is careful not to make a mockery of the disability. She is still in a wheelchair and while there is still some use of her legs, that takes much of her energy for the day and the chair still needs to be accessible. Madeley also immediately has chemistry with Colin Baker and Bonnie Langford who all shine as they have their own parts to play. A lot of the conspiracy of the story comes down to environmentalist themes, specifically looking at the conflicts involved in the actual process of moving away from fossil fuels and what will happen to oil rigs and refineries (mainly those that have created artificial reefs). It’s a cracking opener to be expected from Rayner and enhanced (as the whole set is) by Helen Goldwyn’s touch at directing. 10/10.
Hebe’s first TARDIS trip is from Emmy winning writer (for Phineas and Ferb and Milo Murphy’s Law) Joshua Pruett. The Tides of the Moon continues the semi-aquatic theme with a story about a laid egg, the Earth’s moon (yes, I’m stretching for this reference) in the distant past where there are two races of intelligent inhabitants. The Gilleans are terrorised by the Sheega every night, outsiders are not allowed into the Gillean city, and the gravitational pull of the Earth is spelling disaster for both species. This is a story that is almost stuffed with ideas, but at its heart it still has a fairly small cast and focuses on the character dynamics, mainly on Hebe and Mel. Hebe and Mel’s dynamic in this story in particular has a few issues: it feels like there was an intention to explore subtle ableism which is laudable, but Mel and Hebe are at each other’s throats especially in the first half of the story. Now, I am not attempting to deny that subtle implicit ableism could be a thing for a character like Mel, but there are a few scenes that feel almost out of character in the way she reacts. There is an interesting examination in the early scenes of Hebe interacting with Wulk, a Gillean, and essentially doing a bunch of things she would hate having done to her. It’s an interesting examination of a piece of Doctor Who stories, especially first TARDIS trip stories, that isn’t every brought up. There is a tendency to have companions breach personal boundaries of their first alien race and Pruett’s script does a fascinating job at examining it. Mel and Hebe are also split from the Doctor meaning that the two strands allow Colin Baker time to shine on his own with what makes the Doctor work as a fighter of injustice. It’s also nice to see a story end with an almost peaceful revolution, tying back into themes of discrimination and bigotry being something people can grow from. Though sadly, there isn’t a platypus on the moon. 8/10.
Water Worlds closes with Jonathan Morris doing an Invasion of the Body Snatchers style thriller in Maelstrom. The far future story of this set and another one to continue the themes of identity and ability, though in a very different context. The core idea at Maelstrom is a society of three bodies, but thousands of people stored in a memory bank wrecked by electromagnetic maelstroms. Bonnie Langford has a dual role as her body is taken over by Alef, the daughter of a scientist who has nefarious plans though those motivated by trying to save their people. This means that Langford isn’t playing Mel and Morris relies on the previous two stories to have established the dynamic of the Doctor, Hebe, and Mel so it can be obvious when Mel is Mel and when Mel is Alef. It helps that it’s Mel taken over as she is a character who has had more time to be established in other releases and on television. Maelstrom does have a slight issue in terms of pacing but the acting is on top form, especially when characters start to shift personalities around and Morris really works to get the themes of identity being tied to the mind makes for an interesting one. 9/10.
The Sixth Doctor Adventures: Water Worlds is yet another brilliant relaunch for a Doctor with an introduction of a new companion pushing the series into new territory. The theme allows for this release to have a unique feel and the fact that it ends on a cliffhanger implies that we are going to be getting more of the Doctor, Mel, and Hebe (hopefully very soon). 9/10.
Check out our review of the lncluded bonus release Doctor Who Interludes – The Dream Nexus
Check out the rest of our Big Finish reviews!