Much of the time, the point of Big Finish audio is that it can tell stories to fans who are hardwired into the concepts of their favourite shows, fans who are older and more steeped in the how’s and whys of those shows, so the stories themselves can be more real and less child-orientated than the TV version can be, aimed as it is in the case of Doctor Who at a mixed family audience with at least one child in the group.
Then just occasionally, you come across stories like Cry of the Vultriss, which have a feeling to them that’s precisely like the TV version of the show from whichever era is appropriate.
Early on, you can absolutely imagine Cry of the Vultriss as an eighties Sixth Doctor on-screen story.
All in all, that’s not something that overly recommends it to the listener.
There are at least three separate storylines at work in Cry Of The Vultriss, at least one of which never gets the kind of satisfactory resolution you may be expecting from Big Finish – but it does remind you of stories like The Mysterious Planet, which had the Doctor and Peri walking off into the distance pondering the many questions to which they still needed answers.
The Vultriss are bird-people, and they’re bird-people in that distinctively Classic Who way in which the Menoptera are butterfly-people, or Azmael’s followers in The Twin Dilemma are a different kind of bird-people, rather than say, that New Who way in which the Cat Nuns are cat-people, or the Shansheeth are…well, bird-people. You can imagine the Vultriss mostly as actors in suits with layers of make-up on, which subverts the power of audio to make them properly bird-people.
In particular, that’s a feeling underlined by the fact that the Vultriss are bird people…who cannot fly.
There’s quite a bit of Vultriss societal background delivered in Darren Jones’ story – they used to be able to fly, there’s an equivalent to a witch-trial in which the victim either flies and is innocent or doesn’t fly and is guilty, so their plunge to their death is only right and proper, and we arrive in the midst of a Vultriss civil war. The previously rightful queen, Jabule, has been ousted by the arrival of an upstart mythical messiah, Queen Skye, who has the power of ‘The Cry’ – essentially a squawk that kills. Silly in the abstract, it more or less works in the context of Jones’ story. Ousted Vultriss queens though tend not to take it lightly, and Jabule has become the leader of a group resisting the leadership of Queen Skye, who are regarded as terrorists by that queen.
With us so far? Bird Wars is Storyline One.
Storyline 2 is that the Doctor, Flip and Constance are on their way somewhere utterly else when, for mysterious reasons, they fall out of the vortex and end up on Cygia-Rema, home of the Vultriss. Why they fall out of the vortex and the threat inherent in that fall? Storyline Two.
Storyline Three is, to put it mildly, an homage to The Monster of Peladon. The Vultriss, furiously isolationist for most of their history, are about to welcome ambassadors from space for the very first time, and initially, the Doctor, Constance and Flip are mistaken for those ambassadors.
Nope. It’s the Ice Warriors.
Gimme a break, they’re on the cover, they can’t be that much of a spoiler.
The Ice Warriors here are rather fabulous fun – there’s an Ice Queen, played by Adele Lynch, who played the Ice Queen in Empress Of Mars on TV, there’s plenty of hissy, stomping, growly fun from Nicholas Briggs as ‘the rest of the Ice Warriors,’ and one loyal underling in particular who’s a credit to the stompy, speedy lizard-men from Mars we know and love. The homaging of The Monster Of Peladon comes within an inch of its life, with questions over which Ice Warriors are the Right Ice Warriors, and which, if any, are a bunch of Ice Chancers. And there’s even a glorious handful of call-backs to stories like The Ice Warriors and The Seeds of Death when we first encountered the Ice Warriors in all their conquering glory.
This is perhaps the point – as an Ice Warrior story, Cry of the Vultriss is top notch. As the story of a narrative hacked, abused and brought to life for nefarious purposes, it’s excellent. As the story of the Vultriss, the fundamentals are excellent; there just seems little need for them to actually be bird-people, other than that Classic Who reaching ambition that says ‘Sure, make them bird-people, why not?’ As the story of rebellions, overthrows and clashes of power-groups it works perfectly well, but the nature of the Vultriss as bird-people feels overlaid mostly for 80s kitschy swank, and as such it rarely convinces.
But most of all, despite developing into a threat which powers most of the latter half of the story, the reason the Doctor and his friends are there is distinctly underexplored and underexplained. If you recall the likes of Timelash, or again The Mysterious Planet, and that sense of there being a whole other story that was told before we got there, that’s the vibe of this storyline too – there are things set in motion apparently by the wanton carelessness of another species, and which feed into both the other storylines, but which are never resolved. Why things are the way they are is left for an uncertain other adventure to explain to us. While there’s a certain gambling value in doing things like this, here the sensation is one of missing explanation rather than tantalizing intrigue, and it rather lessens one’s ability to engage with the drama.
Essentially then, Cry Of The Vultriss is a story with three strands, one of which, the Ice Warrior strand, is clear and excellent, one of which, the Vultriss strand, is complex and interesting, for all it feels unnecessary that they’re bird-people, and the third of which, the why are we here and what must we do strand, feels under baked and pace-forced, leading to a degree of disengagement with the whole.
It should be mentioned that this also feels like a big cast of characters, and yet the Doctor, Constance and Flip each have things to do and moments to shine. That’s no mean feat in and of itself. The unravelling of the power-dynamic on Cygia-Rema and the war of the Vultriss queens is especially well delivered, and the dissension between a couple of groups of Ice Warriors is given an extra spin by one of them being led by an Ice Queen. Adele Lynch, incidentally, is a powerhouse in this story, helping it belt along from the moment the Ice Warriors arrive and making it sing.
Overall, Cry Of The Vultriss is a good-ish story, with plenty for people to do, especially Flip and Constance, but it falls short of being hugely memorable or demanding a re-listen by giving only a limited explanation of why things are the way they are. Tony Fyler