It’s been twenty years since Big Finish released Storm Warning, and set the Eighth Doctor, whose time had been cruelly truncated on TV, free in the audio universe with a brand new companion – Charlotte Pollard, the self-styled ‘Edwardian Adventuress.’
Charlotte Pollard (or Charley, to her friends) has gone on to have some of the most amazing, time-twisting adventures of any Doctor Who companion. After a confrontation with an ultra-enemy named Zagreus, she followed the Eighth Doctor into a whole other universe (the Divergent universe) for a run of offbeat and disturbing adventures.
She became the first companion of whom we were at the time aware to encounter two Doctors in non-chronological order, travelling first with the Eight, and then separately with the Sixth.
And in relatively recent Big Finish history, we’ve seen her ageing slowed, working first for a race called the Viryans, and then on her own account, out in the wider universe of time and space.
If you want some more of that older, more experienced Charley, this is not the box set you’re looking for.
This is, pure, simple, and unapologetically, an anniversary celebration set. Placed roughly between Charley’s first two series of adventures with the Eighth Doctor, this is pure nostalgia, but rendered with a modern twist of technology, and more up-to-date writing nuances, so as to feel both familiar to those who’ve followed Charley on every step of her journey, and fresh to those who are just joining the Pollard party.
That’s important to know – while the stories here will undoubtedly feel more layered to people who have heard Charley’s first series, because there are references to stories including Storm Warning and Sword of Orion, you don’t absolutely need to know much by way of chronology to have a rollicking good adventure with this set. Heart of Orion, the final story here, acts as a sequel to Sword, so if you have the time, you could treat yourself and listen to Sword of Orion first, just to lock the world of the storytelling in place in your head, but beyond that – we’re off to the new-old races with Charlotte Pollard and the Eighth Doctor all over again.
It’s worth noting that back in the days of twenty years ago, the Eighth Doctor was still a relatively unknown iteration of the Time Lord, so there were only a handful of notes from the TV movie on which to build his initial character. Bouncy, energetic, fun, with a propensity to name-drop, he was one of the most Tiggerish incarnations we’d had up to that point, not enormously given to grandstanding speeches, but inclined towards action and working things out in his head, rather than necessarily out loud, he was still an enigma, but a fun one.
That matched well with the go-getting energy of the young woman who disguised herself as a boy and stowed away on the airship R-101, determined to see the world. Charley’s energy was always quite bouncy and enthusiastic for life, eager to seek out new things.
It’s rather joyful, in The Mummy Speaks! – Alan Barnes’ opening episode to this new box set – to hear her initially pouring cold water on the Doctor’s enthusiastic words about the city of Paris.
There are some joyous riffs on City of Death in this story, most especially in the opening sequence, where the Fourth Doctor’s descriptions of Paris having a bouquet are borrowed verbatim, only for Charley to declare without ceremony “Oh Doctor – it absolutely HONKS!”
And there she is. India Fisher’s Charley Pollard, wildly enthusiastic about adventure, but equally certain of the experiences she’s having.
But we’re not in the 1970s here. Having tried to take Charley to the Belle Epoque so she can have her portrait painted in a daft scarf by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (“Paint me like your French Bohemians, Henri”?), the Doctor has dropped them in the Paris of 1841 – not long after the death of Napoleon, and with emotions still running pretty high.
But the Parisian setting only becomes properly important late in the day. Because while escaping from an angry mob (don’t ask, just go with it), the Doctor and Charley encounter the Carnaval de Paris, and an attraction that should in no senses…work.
With a resonance of The Silver Turk, where the Eighth Doctor and Mary Shelley encounter a Cyberman in a sideshow (and yes, of course Shelley gets a namecheck), there’s a mummy in the Carnaval de Paris that speaks. So – that’s the title taken care of. As the story unfolds, there are unlikely burglaries, murders, and some similar beats to The Silver Turk, where we understand why the mummy (Cyril Nri) does what it does.
But Alan Barnes is not willing to tread entirely in such familiar territory, and adds in elements with what manages to feel like wild abandon – steampunk touches like mechanical internal organs trapped in canopic jars, scuttling about trying to find new homes, anyone? When the Doctor makes friends with a gorilla named Guy (pronounced Gee, in the French manner, naturally), there’s irresistible play with the Murders In The Rue Morgue (and yes, AE Poe gets a name-check too).
There’s an equally joyous joke for those of us who remember our Eighties pop songs, but we won’t spoil that one for you. Ultimately, The Mummy Speaks! takes the idea of Hollywood B-movie horror stories, gives them a more classical French spin, throws in a handful of body horror and synthesises plenty of solid Doctor Who lore through the mix for a story that’s fast-paced, gothic, funny and exciting, almost all at once. It’s a rip-roaring start to the set and it won’t disappoint anyone who’s missed Charley Pollard.
If The Mummy Speaks! embraces classic Hollywood fear, Eclipse, by Lisa McMullin, gets more personal. If Bruce Wayne had had a morbid fear of moths rather than bats, then Mothman might be opening another reinvention movie as we speak.
On the planet Pteron, moths have gone supersize – think Pteron pterodactyls – only moths. Add to the fact that the locals have given them a killer scary name – the Hellstrung – and you’re in real potential nightmare territory. When Charley and the Doctor arrive in the forests of the Hellstrung, Charley finds shelter in the hut of Keelder (Theo Solomon), one of the humans in a second-generation colony on Pteron.
The Hellstrung, it turns out, don’t eat people – which is always a relief when you have to share a planet with giant swarming moths. But nevertheless, they seem to attack the humans, and people who wander about at night in the Hellstrung forests have a worrying tendency to end up dead.
But Pteron is a planet with more going on than meets the eye. The trees of the forest ooze a bitter sap with interesting properties, and there may be people on the planet with one eye on raping the world of its natural resources and the other eye on a fat bag of cash.
Keelda, who enters the story as a kind of well-meaning innocent, shows the instincts of a companion when he learns the fate of his brother – a scientist who’d been investigating the Hellstrung and their forests, and while he never develops into full-on heroism, he fulfils the Third Doctor’s definition of bravery by being afraid, and doing the right thing anyway.
The colony’s nominal head, Tarper, gives a strong, officious role to Rhoda Ofori-Attah, and she absolutely nails it, delivering probably the best line in the piece with superb and heartless aplomb. And when we finally learn the full details of Pteron’s natural life cycle, there’s a moment of sincere disquiet between Charley and the Doctor, as he’s prepared to watch it unfold, and Charley really isn’t.
There’s a cogent message in Eclipse (which is the proper name for a swarm of moths, by the way). A message of the danger of those who would seek to use a planet for their own devices, even beyond the point where the planet itself unleashes unforeseen consequences on all those who live there. With climate change evolving and worsening as we speak, that’s a message that hits home hard. Like the first story, Eclipse is also slivered through with Doctor Who historical precedents in everything from The Mark Of The Rani to In The Forest Of The Night, while also giving Charley lots of space to stamp her own identity on events as they unfold on Pteron.
The Slaying Of The Writhing Mass, by Eddie Robson, combines a couple of great Who traditions – the taking of something mundane and familiar into time-and-space territory to create a new and impressive adventure on the one hand, and the whole idea of fixed points and paradoxes on the other.
There’s an event that’s become known as… well, as The Slaying Of The Writhing Mass. It’s become the sort of thing that time-travelling species go and gawp at on school trips, using entirely cloaked time ships.
There are three issues with that.
One, they’re all there at the same point in space-time, which essentially leads to the equivalent of a tragic jam in the space-time vortex.
Two, the event has set up a creation myth for one species in particular, where the hero Salan does the whole slaying… of the… well, you get the picture. But no-one knows what Salan looks like. Despite the slaying being one of the most observed phenomena in the history of the species. Suspicious much?
And three – the Doctor and Charley have just received a distress call from the site of the slaying. So that can’t be good.
What follows is wibbly wobbly timey wimey, but in a much more intelligent way than that description would suggest. There’s temporal tomfoolery, paradoxical upheaval, and some flagrant and seriously ill-advised queue-jumping.
There’s fun along the way with a junior space-time traffic cop, agent Laorie, giving Yasmin Mwanza the chance to impress us, as so far she’s done every time she’s worked with Big Finish (more, please!) – especially when it turns out there’s more to Laorie than even she initially guesses. Rhoda Ofori-Attah’s back for a second shot in the box set too, with her fluttering teacher, Alicantis, almost unrecognisably distinct from her hardcore Tarper in Eclipse.
And perhaps most fun of all is Shiloh Coke as Constella, the epitome of bored pupils on stupid school trips throughout the universe.
But ultimately, when all is said and done, this is a story of what we think we know, what we don’t know we don’t know, and why the difference matters a very great deal. It’s not so much a warning against fake news as it is against the overanalysis of mytho-history – especially if you’re going to take it seriously.
That’s a timely warning in our world, which is currently dividing into two starkly opposite interpretations of history, and striking very different poses because of it.
Can Charley and the Doctor stop a potential catastrophe? Who actually slayed the Writhing Mass? And who sent the distress call that got them there in the first place? Everyone who studies the event has their theories – but whom among them, if anyone, is right?
And to round out the set, we take a trip back to Orion, where the premise of Sword of Orion was strong enough to create the Cyberman series. War. Androids. Humans. And originally, Cybermen playing both sides off against each other, like real logical geniuses would do.
Heart of Orion by Nicholas Briggs is a direct sequel to Sword of Orion, but it’s significantly free of Cybermen. This is a story of unfinished business between androids and humans, both of whom have armies standing by or moving in to the Garazone System, ready to eliminate each other. So – business as usual in Orion, then?
We catch up with Deeva Jansen (Michelle Livingstone), an android last heard sacrificing herself in space to the Doctor and Charley could live to run away another day, but there’s a much deeper and richer tone to Heart of Orion than the amount of action packed into Sword ever allowed for.
People are going missing – annnnd then they’re coming back. Big whoop, so what, right?
Sure. So long as they’re coming back the same.
They’re not coming back the same.
Distinctly ‘good cop against the corrupted system’ Dakota Bly, played by the always joyous Rakie Ayola (of whose Cardiff accent, by the way, the world can never have quite enough), is determined to find out what the hell is happening – particularly as her own daughter is one of those who’ve returned.
Cue a Doctor-Charley split-up, each of them tackling the mysteries of the Garazone system from a different angle, and re-uniting in time for some initially disturbing truths that could radically impact Charley’s life. They could bring it to an untimely end, for one thing.
The ending of Heart of Orion is very neatly plotted, and it’s plotted with a good deal of psychological and philosophical heft, too – what’s actually going on is something that seems to buck the laws of reality and storytelling, but every now and again, once in a twinkle of Orion’s belt, it works beautifully.
Here, it works beautifully because Nicholas Briggs puts the work into developing the scenario that lets it make sense.
Heart of Orion surprises listeners by leading with some heavy-duty character development, and then whipping out a plot that makes you nod your head, whether or not you’ve previously heard Sword of Orion. If you have, you’ll understand how the world of the Garazone system has been enriched here, like a marker of the progress that’s been made by Big Finish in the last twenty years.
Charlotte Pollard – The Further Adventuress is everything you want it to be. It’s nostalgic inasmuch as it’s Charley from early in her travels with the Eighth Doctor, all bouncy energy and can-do spirit. But it’s modern in the complexities, the messages and the richness of its writing. There’s enormous fun in The Mummy Speaks!, eco-essages and body horror in Eclipse, temporal jiggery-pokery and the complicated nature of truth in The Slaying of the Writhing Mass, and a rich adventure-essay on the ethical complications of war in Heart of Orion.
You’ll burn through these stories, because once you’ve started, you won’t want to stop. And while The Further Adventuress goes out of its way to make the point that it’s a one-off, it’s good enough to make you ask exactly why it should be.
If the on-screen show is set to move in a multiversal direction with the return of Russell T Davies to the helm, it has to open up at least the possibility of more adventures with companions from various points in any Doctor’s era.
And if they’re as well written, as tonally balanced, and as joyously played as this, you’d be daft not to collect them. Tony Fyler