What’s it about: Christmas 2010, and Jo Grant finds herself stuck in a department store elevator with an alien creature called Huxley. Huxley is a narrator from Verbatim Six, and he is here to let Jo revisit the best time of her life – when she was the plucky companion to that eccentric Space/Time traveller known only as... Iris Wildthyme. Confronted with memories she knew nothing about, Jo agrees to a meeting with Iris inside her transdimensional bus, and together the three of them take a trip back in time. Back to the 1970s, to UNIT HQ, and a meeting with the only person who knows the whole truth…
Dippy Agent: Jo Grant is a character that I came to love late in the day. Sarah Jane will always be my one true love but I always used to think that coming after Liz Shaw Jo was a bit of a letdown. Something happened during my last Doctor Who marathon that changed all that and I suddenly saw Jo through fresh eyes – I could see how resourceful she could be, how much fun she brought to the Doctor’s life and how much Jon Pertwee’s affection for Katy Manning spill on screen in the most delightful of ways. She even had some very nice development, starting out as a naïve young agent but come season eleven she is a confident woman who heads off to enjoy her own life without the Doctor. In Death to the Doctor Russell T Davies brings Jo back to a whole knew generation of kids and once again proves how much fun he can be. Paul Magrs’ does an equally stellar job of bringing an older Jo to life and giving her the chance to have one last amazing adventure and to revisit the man who changed her life forever. His handling of her character is phenomenal because you can hear the slightly loopy, hippy Jo is still in effect but tempered with age and an ever-growing family she now owns herself.
On the whole Jo’s memory is very good and she can remember exactly what she did during the seventies. She complains about Christmas but she loves it really. The way Jo clings onto the truth about her time with the Doctor despite Huxley’s insistence that it never happened is desperately sweet. I wanted to give her a big hug the way she was getting so upset about the thought of never knowing him. When she begins to doubt herself she remembers the way that he used to grab her arm when she was afraid and the softness of his velvet sleeves. She always thought that looking back at the past was a mistake because she wanted to explore new things but the chance to go back to the seventies and see the Doctor again was intoxicating. When Jo recounts her memories of dear, sweet Sergeant Benton I could feel myself welling up. We are as heartbroken as Jo is to discover that the Doctor tried to take away her memories of him – she loved her time with him, it was the most important time and the beginning of her life. Now she is back with the Doctor she wants to wait a bit longer before going back but it is just wishful thinking – she belongs in the future.
Auntie Iris: No word of a lie but every single line that comes out of Iris’s gob in this tale makes me smile. Every. Single. One. Trapped on Earth by her mysterious superiors with the vital element of her time spacecraft taken from her…that’s Iris’ history as far as Huxley is concerned. She looks like she has been on a shoplifting spree with a portmanteau of styles on display. She has always been full of the most wonderful bullshit and is just about the only person who could fill up a noveliser with the most outrageously concocted tales! Iris was looking forward to bumping into the Brigadier again but after that unfortunate do they had in Brighton they might be better off that he is in Geneva.
Good Grief: When she meets up with the Doctor again Jo thinks that he looks strangely youthful because when she was his companion she had been so young and him so immeasurably old. Naturally Iris wastes not time in throwing herself at the Doctor and he orders her to control herself. He never saw how important he was in people’s lives. Not just as the Doctor who goes around saving the planet and all that…but just as himself. Typical Doctor, you get talking about the real stuff and he starts briskly brushing it under the carpet. Isn’t wonderful that Magrs manages to express Jo’s love for the Doctor with verbose outbursts but all he has to do is stare at her with great affection.
Standout Performance: Do you know what I found absolutely extraordinary during this play? I completely forgot that it was only two actors performing it! Katy Manning is an extraordinary talent when it comes to trying on different voices and her turn as Jo and Iris are so different, not just in the tone of voice but the personality it comes with it, that during their scenes together you would swear they were being played by different actresses. Then just when you think she can’t impress you any more along comes the Doctor with Manning adopting an older, wearier voice and you can tell she is putting her heart and soul into bringing this wonderful man to life. Alex Lowe is equally dazzling returning as Huxley and the way he novelises the story in parts making it seem so effortless really made me smile. Bother actors have a real buzz and energy about them and as such this is one of smiliest companion chronicles because you can tell they are really enjoying the material.
Sparkling Dialogue: ‘Remember that mad Nobel Prize winner who invented slime that could read peoples minds, Jo? Or that TV ventriloquist who hypnotised all the children and sent them evil puppets in the post that Christmas! What about the teas made containing actual genies that came to life first thing in the morning in the form of hissy steam and every got just what they were wishing for with their first cup of char in the morning!’
‘Ecky thump! What are you gonna do – drag him up?’
‘What if history really has changed behind our backs when we weren’t looking?’
‘And we fought the Zarbi and Quarks in a great big game of deadly backgammon!’ – I don’t care how many times Magrs repeats this story, its still funny!
‘I would never, ever want to forget anything’ – oh my God I am actually crying…
Great Ideas: The return of Huxley is something I have been eagerly anticipating and it gives Magrs the chance to once again do what he does best and deconstruct the narrative in the most charming of ways. The way Huxley’s narration allows the writer to go beyond simply giving us dialogue but describing the events with the depth of a novel is inspired. The like people with fascinating and way out lives and Jo Jones certainly qualifies for that! Huxley is trying to convince Jo that she has made up her past with the Doctor – it is nothing but layers upon layers of confection! In reality (or at least according to Huxley) she travelled with the intergalactic malefactor and lover of all things inebriating, Iris Wildthyme! The Ministry of Incursion and Ontological Wonders (or MIOAW for short) have been controlling Jo’s life for all this time – I love the way Magrs includes organisation and characters in his various works. Having MIAOW turn up in the EDAs, Big Finish adventures and the Brenda and Effie books gives a sense of scope to the ideas. Who hasn’t wanted to go on trip in Iris’ bus? It sounds like the most delightful old mess – paperbacks, clothes rails, a drinks cabinet…I would be right at home! Iris recounts a whole load of wonderful, crazy adventures with Jo which are not only great throwaway lines but also ideas I would love to see brought to life in the future. Brilliantly Huxley narrates his own overpowering as Iris knocks him unconscious with her soporific cologne.
Audio Landscape: Cars honking, Big Ben chiming, tills been punched, the lift chime, the echoing car park, Iris rummaging around in her bus, the relaxing hum aboard the bus, a kettle whistling, pouring tea, the bubbling, fizzing time vortex that bus screams through, the bus crash landing into the UNIT lawn, twittering birdsong, UNIT soldiers screaming orders as they approach, boot steps on gravel, phone ringing, smashing the glass and the fire alarm sounding, welding curling tongs to a toaster,
Musical Cues: One of my favourite scores of any Doctor Who story in any medium, Daniel Brett produces one memorable piece after another and it deserves some discussion. He kicks off things with great energy as Jo dashes about London doing her Christmas shopping but things soon turn sinister when she is trapped in a lift with Huxley (and the horns come in to good effect here). There’s a comical flute like effect when Iris trips onto the scene. The lute theme at the end of episode one that rises with excitement as Iris tells them that they are off to the seventies is gorgeous. Bombastic drums bang as they make their way through the vortex. Jo revealing herself to Benton features a very sweet piano score that befits their relationship. The music when Jo approaches the laboratory and catches sight of the Doctor makes me choke up every time, it’s so beautiful. Another memorable cue comes when the Doctor is revealed to be the villain of the piece. The music that closes this adventure – from the moment that the Doctor sends Huxley to novelise the Master’s life (and they have to follow up on that promise!) to Iris landing the bus on an unknown planet is my favourite piece of music in any of the audio adventures. Its wonderfully uplifting, exciting, nostalgic and it suggests wonderful things ahead. A brilliant score.
Isn’t it Odd: I’m not sure that the witness protection scheme for Jo really works as an explanation for the Doctor’s outrageous behaviour but it was the very thing that got us on this terrific adventure so I don’t care.
Standout Scene: One of many better the scene where Iris tries to beat Huxley up with Akido (‘ARRRR-CHEEEE!’) makes me crease up every time I hear it (especially because Jo was expecting an ingenious, subtle plan!). Naturally Jo thinks the world of the Doctor and can’t wait for him to put everything right which is why it comes as such a tragic shock when she realises that it was he who sent Huxley after her and tried to steal her past.
Notes: It’s a gorgeous cover with an old publicity photo of Katy Manning at her most beautiful and the background of the Doctor and Iris with their faces blurred fitting in perfectly with the stories unclear continuity. Magrs is one of those writers who will happily skip over continuity (the best writers all do, Jonny Morris and Robert Holmes have been known to as well) in order to tell a good story and in this case he goes one better by dismissing his own BBC novel Verdigris which told a story of Jo’s encounter with Iris back when she was travelling with the Doctor. My philosophy is who cares as long as it tells a good story but I would definitely suggest that if you like Find and Replace as much as I do that you get yourself a copy of Verdigris because it shares this stories sense of joi de vivre and does some wonderful things with Doctor Who in the seventies! It’s the only chance you’ll ever get to see how one dimensional and cardboard Mike Yates really is!
Result: ‘We’re going back to the seventies!’ Jo Grant at her dazzling best, Iris Wildthyme making me laugh myself silly and the return of Huxley who made such an instant impression in Ringpullworld – Find and Replace has all the ingredients to make me one very happy chappy! The sense of nostalgia for the Pertwee era that Paul Magrs conjures gave me goosebumps for much of the second episode and left me grinning from ear to ear. This is a brilliantly funny play with a very touching reunion taking place and lots of delightful characters to spend your time with. Of the stories I have heard it is still Lisa Bowerman’s best ever direction as far as I am concerned and the music brews happy emotions with exactly the same skill as the script. With the two working together you don’t have a chance of resisting this companion chronicle. This is everything the best Doctor Who audios should be - imaginative, pleasurable and filled with great lines and performances. Easily my most re-listened Big Finish of recent years and one of the stories I grab for automatically when I am in a bad mood. It never fails to make me laugh and to cry and love Doctor Who: 10/10
My review of Verdigris here: http://docohosreviews.blogspot.com/2009/09/verdigris-by-paul-magrs.html