Doctor Who: Blood On Santa’s Claw – Starring: Colin Baker, Nicola Bryant, and Luke Allen-Gale. Written by: Alan Terigo, Susan Dennom, Andrew Lias and Venu Fontina (Oh no wait, sorry, Nev Fountain) & Directed by Jon Ainsworth – CD / Download (Big Finish)
When writing a review of a sort-of Christmas Special collection from Big Finish, you would not believe how tempting it is to fall back on cliché. Yadda yadda Christmas cracker, yadda yadda better than a snog under the mistletoe, yadda yadda all the Christmas presents you could wish for in a multi-coloured tasteless sack, etc etc etc. You get the (snow! Sorry, it’s compulsive…) drift.
Having at least acknowledged that, let’s try and get through the rest of the review without obvious Christmas references and poorly-judged puns, shall we?
Settle down at the back, this is a serious review.
Except it’s tricky, because the first story here, Blood On Santa’s Claw by Alan Terigo, is a festive pun in its own right, a play on the Tigon Pictures horror movie and subsequent Bafflegab audio drama, Blood On Satan’s Claw. It’s also absolutely accurate – Santa’s in this story. He has claws. There’s blood on them. Hoorah. Well done, Mr Terigo, please feel free to draw your salary.
Santa also gets sleighed, or if you prefer, Slade, early on in the episode, which forms a central strand of the mystery the Doctor, Peri and Joe, Peri’s partner, have to investigate.
Oh, yeah, sorry – Peri has a partner. His name’s Joe. Bit of a dick, frankly. Worked in the music industry before all this time and space malarkey. Picked her up after an episode of Top Of the Pops she attended. The in-jokes here are huge, given that Nev Fountain, who writes the topper to this set, is the real-life partner of Nicola Bryant, so making the in-universe partner of Peri a bit of a dick is a bold move by Terigo. Also, there’s footage out there of Nicola Bryant actually at a filming of TOTP, so, yeah – funny. Also, your reaction to the idea of Peri having a partner (which we assume means everything we’re supposed to think it means) will depend on whether you fall into the ‘Eww, space-time boinking!’ camp or whether you were a teenage heterosexual boy in the 1980s.
Either way, you’re likely to want to pass Peri a subtle note, or, given Fugitive Of The Judoon, a poorly iced cake, to remind her that while you understand that all of space and time can be a lonely address and of course, a girl has needs, she can do so much better than this guy (It’s…probably best not to focus on the idea that in the TV canon at least, she ended up marrying King Yrcanos when you grab your piping bag though).
They discover the dead Santa on the world of Naxios, where animals talk and live in fear of being run over by Mr Toad, and Shakespearean-named characters act as constructs for particular slices of human emotion or endeavour. There’s a lot of world-building needed to make Naxios work, including religions attached to fictional constructs (hence the talking animals) and the idea that irrespective of such religious observances, there’s mining work to be done or a price to pay. Needless to say, it’s all more or less an afternoon’s work for the Doctor and Peri to topple a dictatorial regime, find out who killed Santa and set the talking animal-people free. Meanwhile, Joe wimps out of going down a tunnel and ends up having quite a nice tea. He’s both useless and a pillock, and it’s to the credit of Luke Allen-Gale that while we understand all this, we never stop listening to what he says, and we actually even give him some credit for his objections, his ability to puncture the adrenalin-junkie bubble that the Doctor and Peri, he alleges, have fallen into, throwing themselves between the victimised and their oppressors without a second thought. Allen-Gale balances his performance between useless pillock and rational bubble-burster with significant aplomb (There’s a line for the cuttings file!), at least in the first story, where we’re open to mixed impressions of this new Joe of whom we’ve never heard.
The second story in the collection, The Baby Awakes by Susan Dennom, is rather less of a romp, and in it, Joe is significantly less likeable. The story will appeal to anyone who likes, for instance, Nev Fountain’s Peri and the Piscon Paradox or Joseph Lidster’s The Reaping. Anyone, in fact, who likes to hear Nicola Bryant get a chance to tackle heavy powerful, all-engaging emotions, like disappointment and loss (Not for nothing, if that’s you, check out the audiobook of Fountain’s novel, Pain Killer – it’s something like nine hours of Nicola Bryant playing a character put almost perpetually through both the physical and the emotional wringer. With extra swearing). We’re dropped into an undercover operation here, to investigate the Ishtar Institute, a place which can show you, by the use of technology, what your children would look like, act like and be like at any age you choose, allowing you to try before you buy their particular lives, designing the final ‘product’ down to your finest specification before they’re made for you and you get to take them home.
Ultimate genetic psycho-social convenience, or monstrous abuse of the power of creation and timelines? You decide. There’s a degree to which the answer probably depends on your ability to keep your emotions from spilling over, and keep your bonding instincts in check. But then if you can do both of those things, it’s arguable you’re not the best person to be choosing the traits of your children. (Designer parents now – that might be a thing. Retro-actively choose the parents you feel you deserve, and feel the timelines and your personality change accordingly…)
Peri and Joe are there with the Doctor on a tip-off from one such designed child who, when rejected by their prospective parents was sold like used kitchen grease to the military, so they could do what they wanted – implant all kinds of weapons systems in them and send them off to fight. The investigation is supposed to discover whether their information is true or not, but while Joe is detached from the whole process, once she’s interacted with her three potential children they’re absolutely real to Peri – which makes it perhaps more tricky even than usual when they turn into monstrous hairy savage beasts in their teens (the satire may not be subtle here, but it does raise a smile). Obviously, something deeply amiss is going on at the Ishtar Institute, and when they find our what it is, there’s hell to pay for everyone – even the Doctor and Joe.
The Baby Awakes is a poignant emotional message wrapped in a science-fiction scandal of technologically-advanced amorality. Which is never a bad thing. Dennom balances her story well between the rush of sci-fi ideas and the shuddering impact they have, not only on the babies made and never accepted, but on Peri as our window into the impact of having a baby, or even the imagined future of a baby when it’s growing inside you, and then having that taken from you by time or circumstance when you really wanted to keep it. It’s a heart-rending performance from Nicola Bryant and it’s a story that punches above its run-time in terms of pain. You’ll remember this one for a good long while once you finish the release.
I Wish It Could Be Christmas Every Day by Andrew Lias, and Brightly Shone The Moon That Night by Nev Fountain are an unofficial two-part story, taking place for the most part on the most effective version of Hell on Earth we’ve yet encountered – a never-ending Christmas party. Robot waiters serve perpetual drinks and canapes, but what ever you do, don’t mess with the mistletoe. While Lias gives the Doctor, Peri and Joe an initial mystery to work out – whose party is this, why are they at it, why has it been going on as long as it has, even though it’s categorically no longer anywhere near the Christmas period, and if it’s not just a Christmas party doomed never to end, like Mawdryn Undead in naff paper hats and the hell of perpetual Slade, then what the hell is it for? Lias answers most of this, but also pushes the story to a breaking-point cliffhanger, which allows Nev Fountain to focus on expanding the answers into something bigger than you’ll ever see coming. Something that lives in myth and legend, and apparently not only on our own planet. There are fairly demented consequences in Fountain’s finale – for Peri, for Joe, for the Doctor, but also just possibly for the web of time and the universe as a whole as the Doctor falls into a convoluted time trap, and it’s only once you get to the end that you realise the extent of the emotional journey Blood On Santa’s Claw, and other stories has taken you – from the dark, satirically whimsical fun of the eponymous first story, through the heart-punch of the second, to the Christmas party from Hell, ramping up to the mad, all-inclusive climax of Brightly Shone The Moon That Night. It’s quite the Christmas trip.
Overall then, Blood On Santa’s Claw, and other stories is surprising, affecting, odd-in-a-good-way and ends on a high of ‘Wait, what-now?’ not unlike Fugitive Of The Judoon – adding to the legends of space and time we think we know in a way which’ll make you blink, and nod, and want to hear more in future releases. In some ways it’s a necessarily standalone collection, but the issues it raises have the potential to stay with you long after you finish it. In other words, Blood On Santa’s Claw, and other stories is for life – not just for Christmas.
(Damn!) Tony Fyler