What's it about: The TARDIS deposits its crew on Earth in San Francisco, 1906. There they find an actor-manager desperate to stage his definitive production of King Lear. But a real storm is headed their way when he becomes the possessor of a mysterious psychic ‘Gift’ which is hungry for power and intent on wreaking havoc and destruction. But exposure to so much psychic activity has the Doctor becoming increasingly erratic. Can he battle his demons and save the world?
Physician, Heal Thyself: Capturing something of the Night at the Proms minisode, the Doctor talks poetically (naturally given this is a Marc Platt script) about the movement of the spheres and the noise that they make. You forget that the Doctor is connected to the universe in a very special way and it is in moments like this (and that stunning scene in Rose where he talks about the turn of the Earth). I think we could do with more of these kinds of reminders. It's also very possible that the Doctor is going crazy. He's also the worst patient ever. He knows San Francisco well, he died and was reborn here. If he were to die again here but 93 years before his last regeneration...well that would be ironic. With the right haircut, the Doctor can think clearly. Is this the point where he gets his hair shorn off? Was he the Byronesque traveller up until this point? Because there is an awful lot of merchandise that suggests otherwise. He would happily burn out his mind if it meant destroying the gift and stopping Caleera.
Liv Chenka: She's perfectly prepared to stand up to a robber, not willing to be bullied or threatened. Live trapped under rubble is a claustrophobic, frightening experience. She's not used to feeling this helpless.
Helen Sinclair: Helen is feeling guilty that Caleera got into her head and preyed on her compassionate side, convincing the Doctor to let her go. For once she is the more seasoned traveller, landing in a period only 50 or so years away from her own so she knows the correct protocol and dress code.
Standout Performance: It's not an original observation to say that Paul McGann is an emotive performer and that you can tell when he is engaged with a story or not. At his best he is one of the most excitable and imminently listenable Doctors. it's impossible not to get caught up in his wake. Of recent years check out The Silver Turk to see what I mean. At his worst he can sound flat and uninterested and it usually comes at the worst possible time - when the stories are flat and uninteresting too. It's fortunate then that he seems thrilled with the material for Doom Coalition and the companions he has been paired up with. Indeed, McGann requested to work with Hattie Morahan and that can only have added to his enjoyment. He's audibly having a great ride with these stories and the result is a riveting Doctor who delights at every turn. Whether he's lusting after adventure, suffering a funny turn or simply outfoxing the latest intergalactic foe, Doom Coalition seems to be bringing out the best in McGann. And his best is very good indeed. Mind you it is weird to hear him calling somebody 'Charlie' out of context. Check out his breathless, incredible performance when he finally acquires the gift. It's the closest to madness I think the Doctor has ever got (maybe The Twin Dilemma pips it).
Great Ideas: Sam has the gift to see into the future. Although some people might call it a curse. It amplifies reality and feeds on the resonance. It can be transferred from person to person and if you are wise you will pass it on to somebody else. It's a tangible thing and it's alive and growing in San Francisco. There are links to Caleera in the city, the gift. The Earthquake in 1906 will happen anyway but Caleera plans to make it far more dramatic for her own purposes. The gift was deliberately planted here by her to test it out. It is a weapon, a psychic device that jumps from host to host, sparks into the brain and reprogrammes the mind. Designed to amplify its power like an echo chamber. It's waiting for the earthquake so it can amplify its power and shake the planet apart. Once the Whenever there is a reward to exploit there will always be someone there with their hands out, regardless of the consequences.
Audio Landscape: A horse whinnying, the TARDIS landing, trams rolling through town ringing their bells, bar atmosphere, music winding down, a dog begging, creaking rigging, rushing footsteps, rubble falling, fire raging.
Isn't it Odd: The first third of this story is something of a mystery, with plenty of things happening but very little in the way of explanation. It's a good thing the atmosphere of this piece is so electric and the performances are such fun. I have a complaint to make about Liv and Helen. Despite coming from different times and places there is something remarkably similar about the pair of them. For me, even the actresses sound quite similar. When the Doctor, Liv and Helen share scenes there is a wonderfully relaxed chemistry between them and all is good. When Liv and Helen go off on their own (as they have done a fair amount in this box set) not only do I occasionally lose track of who is who (on audio that's a bit of a problem) but I also question whether the set requires both companions. Helen was a vital part of Scenes From Her Life, it's true but I find Liv the more relatable and personable of the two of them. Bringing in an actress to appease the main star of a project might seem like a good idea on paper (and as mentioned above Paul McGann is on fire here) but in reality I wonder what we would lose if there was only one companion. Helen is nice but nice only gets you so far in storytelling. She hasn't exhibited any great personality and she doesn't have any truly distinctive features. It's not a problem having her there (as I say, she's nice and doesn't the world need a few more nice people) but I do question the need for her.
Standout Scene: Big Finish pulls off an earthquake with spectacular style.
Result: One of the delightful things about Doom Coalition as a whole is its diversity, its willingness to play about with different styles and genres. Every story feels very different to its neighbour and that contrast provides a healthy reminder of one of the main joys of Doctor Who - it's willingness to tell any kind of story. Dark Eyes might have been ambitious but each set did have a certain uniformity about it that meant if you didn't like the tone of the piece, you were kind of stuck with it for four hours. The Gift plays out like a disaster movie of sorts, with the Doctor in the unfortunate quandary of having to save the day otherwise the location where he will regenerate in 93 years time wont ever have existed. I hear that can put a serious crimp in your life. It's one of the most crisp and clear Marc Platt scripts for quite some time, clearly he has been given some notes of details to include but he manages to weave them into a gripping tale of a curse that has blighted San Francisco and has been gathering momentum for some time. All roads lead to the earthquake and when it comes it is a truly remarkable audio experience with some serious consequences for the characters. Amongst all the drama, Paul McGann is a mesmeric presence, his Doctor not being this captivating since his earliest audio adventures. How these stories are blending into each other is seamless, one plot point taking us from one independent story to another. I have a feeling David Richardson and Ken Bentley know exactly where they are taking us with Doom Coalition and that is an exciting feeling because with each story the arc is gathering real momentum. Often the journey is more exhilarating than the destination but just this once I have real confidence that this is heading somewhere spectacular. The Gift was thoroughly enjoyable and with it Doom Coalition is become the highest scorer in any Doctor Who line in some time: 8/10