Doctor Who: Ravenous 1 – Starring Paul McGann Nicola Walker, Hattie Morahan, Mark Bonnar, Ian McNeice, Laurence Dobiesz, Gyuri Sarossy, Tracy Wiles, Beth Chalmers, Roger May, Judith Roddy, Sarah Lambie, Jane Booker, Christopher Ryan, Nicholas Rowe, Amerjit Deu, Charlie Condou, Pippa Bennett-Warner & Beth Goddard. Written by John Dorney & Matt Fitton. Directed by Ken Bentley – CD / Download (Big Finish)
Saddle up, Eighth Doctor fans – we’re back with the last of the pre-War Doctors, and back in a big multiple box set of trouble.
When last we saw him in his (relatively) straight continuity, he was defeating the machinations of the Doom Coalition to either control the universe or end it. Business as usual, to be fair. But there was a dramatic consequence of saving the universe this time – the Doctor’s friend from 1960s Earth, Helen Sinclair, went spinning off into almost certain oblivion with The Eleven.
For those just tuning in, The Eleven is a Time Lord whose eleven incarnations are all accessible within his current body, and who frequently fight for dominance of his arms, legs, brain and mouth. It’s a great concept, brought to life with some degree of manic genius by Mark Bonnar.
Ravenous begins then with the Eighth Doctor and his other friend, Liv Chenka from Kaldor City (home of the Robots of Death), hot on the trail of their friend, trying to rescue her from the machinations of the multi-faced, multi-minded monster.
Except much to Liv’s intense irritation, she lives in an Eighth Doctor box set, which means there has to be a good deal of faffing about before they can actually get any credible rescuing done.
As faffing about goes though, the first two stories of this box set are damn high-class. They’re faffing about with whipped cream and cherries on top, in fact. First up, Their Finest Hour by John Dorney brings Ian McNeice’s Winston Churchill, who’s got plenty of form at faffing about with the New Who Doctors already, crashing into Classic Who territory. It’s a wartime story that in particular pays tribute to the bravery and brilliance of the Polish airmen who played a vital role in the Battle of Britain. It’s also a relatively straightforward premise, almost worthy of Douglas Adams – in the skies above Britain, there’s a slab of…nothingness. A big oblong patch of nothing-there, which is heat-raying planes and pilots to incredibly thorough destruction. Needless to say, it’s not from around here, and the Doctor and Liv are called in to twiddle screwdrivers at it and make it go away.
McNeice’s Churchill and McGann’s Doctor have an easy, bouncy repartee in Dorney’s script, but the stand-out star of the story is Nicola Walker as Liv Chenka. Since she first appeared in Sylvester McCoy story Robophobia, Chenka’s been getting better and better, more comfortable with the business of bouncing around space and time saving people, and in Their Finest Hour and in fact throughout this box set, she absolutely flies (oh gods…awful unintentional pun. Sorry. Sorry. Really, sorry). She’s reached the level of mickey-taking, problem-solving, citizen of the universe competence familiar from New Who companions like late-stage Amy Pond or Clara Oswald, only with a joyfully dry undercutting wit and her own set of distinct skills.
There’s punch and poignancy in the story which you can hear coming if you’ve listened to enough Doctor Who from Big Finish, but Dorney pitches his punch just right to achieve a balanced result, and for all it’s a detour on the road to finding Helen, it feels like a worthwhile one, and a rich experience.
How To Make A Killing In Time Travel, Dorney’s second story in the set, is more outrageously comedic than Their Finest Hour. Much is made of a likeness to the work of the Cohen brothers, and the action centres on a genius scientist who turns absolutely rubbish criminal. It’s a ‘desperation romp,’ the comedy coming from what people in horrifying situations do to try and push their luck to a satisfactory conclusion. There’s blackmail, chicanery, a robot with a funny translation circuit, a positively Trumpian financier…oh and a couple of royal warring scorpions. Because why wouldn’t there be a couple of royal warring scorpions?
Against that background, the Eighth Doctor and Liv wander round like Holmes and a highly savvy Watson, switching off machines here, investigating murders there, dealing with galaxy-imperilling temporal implosions and generally saving the day. It’s a rich, fun, runaround bit of business, and a complete, concise world that’s going terribly terribly wrong. Again, you’ll be listening to everything Nicola Walker says, because she’s an utter joy, but kudos too to Judith Roddy as Stralla Cushing, an unexpected driver of the drama here, along with the comedy-blackmail duo of Sarah Lambie and Jane Booker as Gorl and Dron respectively, of whom it would have been fun to hear more in future encounters with other Doctors…
Oh. Oh well…
In the time-honoured tradition of Eighth Doctor box sets, having been diverted for a couple of hours, the final two episodes of Ravenous 1 are a single connected story that get the Doctor to his object – in this case, a reunion with Helen. But Helen Sinclair is not quite the woman she was when she last saw the Doctor – she’s spent a lot of intervening time with The Eleven, in a penal colony-cum-asylum where the inmates are remarkably docile, as a result of a very special diet.
There’s a loose rule in Doctor Who fandom. The less convincing, the less impressive, the less scary overall a monster is, the more determined fans become to see or hear them again. It’s the notion that while they might not have had the best time on TV, there are interesting things to be done with them…in the right hands.
The Kandyman actually was an interesting concept when he was first devised, as an obsessive, flavour-demented chemist who made sweets so good they killed people. When he was eventually realised on-screen as Hell’s Licorice Allsort Assortment, yes, he looked absurd, but actually, if you stopped and thought about him for a moment and watched his mouth move, you could still get a shiver out of the will to survive beneath that absurdity.
Matt Fitton brings the calorie-compulsive chemist back to Doctor Who, and does it rather more as his creator, Graeme Curry, envisaged, a slick-faced, sugar-sheened humanoid with an android intelligence hidden in his sucrose-based body. He’s played by Nicholas Rowe as a brilliant, brittle figure – important, powerful but desperate to be recognised for his brilliance and the role he plays. In World of Damnation, the first part of the two, he’s responsible for pacifying the prisoners on the planetoid where The Eleven and Helen have been hanging out, working on The Eleven’s control issues and getting rather close.
Needless to say, by the time the Doctor and Liv get there, things are getting out of control, and here we learn not only how the Kandyman has been plying his trade, but also why it’s really not a good idea to cross him. It’s a joy to hear the Eighth Doctor and the Kandyman banter, both of them significantly older than they were in The Happiness Patrol (yes, for once in recent Who history, both characters meet each other in the right order!). As disorder threatens to overwhelm the prison, we’re introduced to new important characters, including a crab in a robo-suit and a deeply sweet couple, comprised of a criminal and a nervous ultra-psychic – annnd why not? – and as the action moves into episode four , Sweet Salvation, there’s a satisfying underlying logic revealed to what the Kandyman’s actually up to, who his friends and allies are, and what, exactly, the ‘Ravenous’ might be. If life is all just chemistry, then sweets can kill, can pacify, can modify the mindset of anyone who eats them, and free will dies of disobedience or hunger.
Sweet Salvation is well plotted and better paced, so it ramps up the return of the Kandyman, the creepy hints at the Ravenous, and the battle of the egos as the Kandyman, The Eleven and the Doctor pit their wits against each other. Ravenous 1 overall is definitely two episodes of productive, enjoyable faffing and a two-parter of ramped-up, amped-up action, but it works for all that, the styles of the stories feeling right within the first stage of this new Eighth Doctor boxsetathon. Will you enjoy every episode of the four this time out? Absolutely – both writers know their roles here and deliver compelling stories with satisfying twists, lashings of character and plenty of space, despite a full villain-roster, for Paul McGann’s Eighth Doctor to make his mark and drive events. Right there beside him though, Nicola Walker’s Liv Chenka feels like one of the great companions, more here than ever before. She and McGann’s Doctor together feel like an unstoppable, adorable Tardis team in Ravenous 1. Here’s to more of them in the next box set. Tony Fyler