The Real McCoy: I’m trying to think where I fall with the seventh Doctor, Ace and Hex combination, which was a popular one for some time thanks to some very solid stories during the mid-range of their run (which co-coincided with the introduction of Ken Bentley to the company with some remarkably polished productions). The Magic Mousetrap-A Death in the Family is a terrific run (with Protect and Survive another zinger) and for a while there was a feeling that this team could just run and run. However, Big Finish got a little greedy, enjoyed working with Philip Olivier a little too much (and why not, he’s clearly very charming) and the character was kept on longer than was strictly necessary. And the less said about the whole Hector debacle the better. As a team they can be extremely complimentary; the Doctor at his most manipulative and his companions reacted against that, Hex being a little green and Ace rising to the challenge and mentoring him and she in return getting the useful lesson of learning that people really do suffer during their adventures. My biggest problem is, as ever, the performances. Sylvester McCoy and Sophie Aldred can both rely on hysterics rather than underplaying a moment and at times seem to egg each other on and alas Olivier, the subtlest of the three, gets dragged into all the shouting too (Project: Destiny was a nightmare for this). With this three it can become a horrible angst-ridden screaming match and that’s just the kind of drama that I’m interested in. I’ll go an watch EastEnders if I feel the need. So yes, a complimentary team on paper, with each of them bringing something very different to the table that can fairly often be sabotaged by some amateurish performances that stress the melodrama rather than the drama. I’d say it’s definitely been enough time to bring back Olivier for a one-off special and that delving into old teams like this shakes up the format quite nicely.
I love the idea of the Doctor being so in the dark as everybody else (apparently) and his giddiness at the idea of exploring. Taking samples back to the TARDIS is legitimate research, not nicking stuff. Ace admits that the Doctor always finds a way, practically endorsing his unorthodox methods that she is usually complaining about. Had the Doctor landed the TARDIS on Nirvana he would have put the planet in jeopardy. It’s a unique event in space-time and he refused to murder it simply to get his friends back. He had to find another way, which meant leaving his friends stranded and taking his time to find a better way.
Oh Wicked: Ace, the action woman, wishes she had brought her climbing gear with her. At the first opportunity she is scaling the candy floss cliffs and throwing herself into danger. Interestingly, Ace lies to Hex about the warnings of the other people that have been lost on Nirvana. Even more interestingly she lies next to him to share body warmth, an intimacy that they haven’t shared before. Both Ace and Hex bring something useful to a situation where survival is key; she’s willing to do whatever needs to be done in order to obtain supplies (robbing the dead) and he has the medical knowledge to keep them safe if they get hurt. It seems very right that Ace should be used to the Doctor’s coldness by now and his morally questionable justifications but that she is upset for what he is putting Hex through.
Sexy Scouse: Hex hasn’t been at this lark for so long that he isn’t awed by the tundra of an alien landscape. He’s always liked being by the seaside, it reminds him of Blackpool. Depending on who is writing for Hex there has been a thread of him fancying Ace throughout their run but this was never truly capitalised on. Handcock grabs this thread by the horns and reveals a nervous Hex rehearsing how he can propose a date to her and it is very endearing. I’d say she isn’t worth the bother mate. Too high maintenance. I enjoyed the mention of Damo, a nice touch that links back to Hex’s first adventure. Hex sounds decidedly chipper at the thought of being trapped on a planet with just Ace for all eternity. I’m guessing that’s what marriage feels like for some people. Hex is extremely upset with the Doctor for putting him through hell to save the life of the planet that was attempting to kill him. This is another step on the path to A Death in the Family, where he has finally had enough of the Time Lord and how he fucks about with his friends lives.
Standout Performance: It was all going so well until the nature of the planet revealed itself and then Aldred starts screaming her head off in her usual alarming fashion. She makes up for it tenfold in episode two, especially in the scene after her dream where she insists that the Doctor never lets her down. This story really does reveal her strengths and her weaknesses as a performer on audio.
Sparkling Dialogue: ‘At least whatever happens, we’re not alone.’
Great Ideas: This is the only pair of stories of the three releases where the first story leads directly into the second. I really like that, trying something completely different with each pair. A planet that shouldn’t be in this sector of space that the TARDIS cannot identify. A planet that ambushed the TARDIS? That’s a novel idea (The Pirate Planet aside). In some civilisations, waving back is considered a proposal of marriage. Bodies of people from different time zones, spanning a couple of thousand years between them. The most modern materials are the most decayed, proving there is some kind of temporal discrepancy. The walls covered in messages from so many languages warning the unwary traveller to leave this place – that’s a really chilling notion. There are legends back on Gallifrey about Nirvana, the story of a world at odds with the rest of the universe. Nirvana doesn’t exist in normal space, it only appears in reality once every thousand years and it doesn’t remain there long. If you’re trapped on Nirvana and it pops out of normal space, you’re doomed. The planet doesn’t adhere to the conventional law of physics, time passes differently which makes it that much harder to communicate. The voices on the wind in episode one was the Doctor, talking to the past. A voice travelling across time. The planet is alive and trapping people is part of an elaborate feeding cycle. If the Doctor had materialised the TARDIS on Nirvana again it would have ben stranded in one time and place. Stuck in normal time, unable to travel.
Standout Scene: It’s a massive compliment to say that I found the conversation between the Doctor and Ace when he communicates across time to have a similar frisson as the one between the Doctor and Rose at the end of Doomsday. In both situations you have the companions trapped in a place where the Doctor cannot reach them and he is going to great lengths to speak to them. I felt the connection between McCoy and Aldred better than practically any story has managed for the first time in ages. I had goosebumps.
Result: A clever character tale, this is almost two one-part stories where the first episode twists into something very different in the second. Handcock really understands these characters, their dynamic and history and how to bring the best out in the performers. It means that episode one passes really amiably, with the mystery of the planet that shouldn’t be there being explored a pace that allows us to simply enjoy some time with them. And to get me to enjoy some time hanging with the seventh Doctor, Ace and Hex without any other distractions is quite an achievement. It helps that the planet they are investigating is eerie and atmospheric, and the answers about why are so electrifying. It’s Brigadoon, but in race against time horror. The second episode is something quite different for Doctor Who, two characters facing a life alone in a screaming wilderness and slowly losing hope. I was really drawn into the intimacy of their situation, and their slow burn realisation that there is no way out. It’s a fantastic episode for McCoy’s Doctor, despite the fact that he barely appears. Always morally ambiguous, his manipulative and callous streak is given a fresh lick of paint when we get to see how his actions truly affect his friends through Hex’s eyes. For the record I’ve scored the two-part stories 4, 10, 9, 8, 7, 9 which is a much better average than the main range has received from me of late. It’s been a terrific success, shaking up the format like this and I hope to see something similar happen again soon. I think an hour is a good length for a Doctor Who story on audio (it’s why the companion chronicles never outstayed their welcome and why the eighth Doctor stories have such pace and urgency) and it’s nice to see Doctors five, six and seven get in on the action. Each two-part set has a superior story and World Apart is the feature adventure for the seventh Doctor. He’s busy with other projects, but I’m pleased to see that Scott Handcock is listed in the schedules as providing a main range story this year. If his work on Dorian Gray, Torchwood and Gallifrey has taught me anything, it’s that Handcock understands how to get the best out of audio; in terms of storytelling, atmosphere and characterisation. More from him please: 9/10