Doctor Who: Iron Bright – Starring Colin Baker, James MacCallum, Christopher Fairbank, Catherine Bailey, Imogen Church, Becky Wright, Anthony Townsend, Sam Woodward & Richard Unwin. Written by Chris Chapman & Directed by John Ainsworth – CD / Download (Big Finish)
Colin Baker returns in this month’s pseudo-historical, Iron Bright, which begins as a spooky tale of ghosts and spectral occurrences, deep in the belly of one of the most important tunnels in history – the 1825 Thames Tunnel project that marked mankind’s first successful attempt to burrow beneath a body of water.
Featuring both a historical setting as well as science fiction elements, the “pseudo-historical” has pretty much become the standard type of historical story associated with Doctor Who on television. It is a sharp contrast to the show’s early years, in which the “pure historical” dominated – stories set in Earth’s past and featuring no science-fiction elements at all (save the TARDIS and the Doctor himself).
All that changed in July 1965, when the Doctor, Vicki and Steven arrived in England during the Norman Conquest in Dennis Spooner’s The Time Meddler. The TARDIS crew arrive in England mere months before the battle of Hastings. However, they come across some very anachronistic technology, including a modern wristwatch. As the time travellers battle against the machinations of a local monk, it slowly becomes apparent that something is not right with their mysterious opponent – he knows much more than a mere monk should in 1066. Eventually, in one of the series’ most unexpected cliffhangers (at the end of Episode Three) it is revealed that the Monk does, in fact, have his own TARDIS, is a member of the Doctor’s race, and has travelled into Earth’s history for his own nefarious purposes.
After The Time Meddler, historical stories would never be the same again. There would only be six more pure historicals in the entire subsequent history of the show (including Black Orchid, which was broadcast almost 20 years later!) Instead, almost all historical stories would also feature a science-fiction element. And although Big Finish would successfully revive pure historical serials, the pseudo-historical also lives on – in this case, in the Thames Tunnel.
Set in 1828, three years into the project, Iron Bright opens with the father-and-son team of Marc and Isambard Brunel finding themselves beset on all sides with a combination of labour strife and supernatural weirdness. A strange, glowing figure has been appearing to their workers, delaying the dig and frightening an already very superstitious crowd. When the Doctor arrives on the scene, he pledges to help, but even his involvement cannot prevent a near-cataclysm when the ghostly figure tries to sabotage a gala dinner the Brunels have arranged, deep in the belly of the tunnel’s first half. And that’s when things go from fairly mundane to extraordinary.
It quickly becomes apparent that the Brunels’ historic dig intersects with something amazing. And yet when ambassadors of the early industrial revolution make contact with what can only be described as another world, all is definitely not wine and roses. Because there is a reason this strange nexus point has come into fruition, and it has more to do with the failures of 1820s London than the successes. Something terrible has drifted from humanity’s plane and has begun to contaminate a world that operates both parallel and perpendicular to our own.
This is an example of a story that begins in very typical fashion and travels in a direction that no listener could possibly guess. Because Iron Bright is not simply a pseudo-historical that introduces science-fiction elements when the time is right. Rather, it’s a story that begins in the ordinary world and – by the time we reach the final episode – takes us someplace fantastic, much in the same way that The Stones of Blood or Shada did in the original series.
One of the things that Big Finish has been highly successful with any recent years is its casting, and the eclectic group of characters that make up this story’s dramatis personae is no exception. From the wide-eyed Tan, played with gusto by Catherine Bailey, to industrialist Marc Brunel, brought to life by Christopher Fairbank, each individual is a world unto him or herself, with well-established motivations and agendas. Imogen Church’s Rispa is another intriguing character, neither black nor white, but a very pragmatic shade of gray. Even Colin Baker’s Doctor – who very much finds himself caught between a rock and a hard place – is typically careful to not upset the status quo. And yet, when faced with inquisitive minds (like the ones that only the industrial revolution could have nurtured) the Doctor finds himself bending long-held rules and practices. But the most fascinating of them all is James MacCallum’s young Isambard Brunel. Part dreamer, part opportunist, and desperately trying to claw his way out from beneath the shadow of his father, Isambard plays such an essential role in the story, because we literally don’t know what he’s going to do next. But this unpredictability has very little to do with any innate recklessness; rather, the young engineer’s personal journey simply takes him in new and unexpected directions. In many ways, Isembard’s growth is the story, a story that would have ended very differently had he made different choices.
But the story’s successes are not merely in the characters, nor is it simply the product of writer Chris Chapman’s plotting and director John Ainsworth’s pace. Iron Bright is, in essence, a morality tale, with all of humanity on trial for crimes that – even now, in 2018 – we can all sympathize with.
And yet, while Iron Bright’s overt message has to do with the failings of mankind, and the way that even our triumphs can poison the various spheres that surround us, it also has a far subtler message. In many ways, this story is a celebration of the ordinary; it champions the normal, everyday life that each of us leads. More than anything, it celebrates how an ordinary individual can become someone extraordinary, and that is something to celebrate indeed. Peter McAlpine