Doctor Who: Short Trips: Mel-Evolent : Written by Simon A Forward & Narrrated by Bonnie Langford. Directed by Helen Goldwyn – Download (Big Finish)
Doctor Who lends itself to fairy tales very well, if you get the language right. The Tardis is a magic wardrobe that can whisk you away to Never Never Land, to fight powerful demons by the side of a knight errant, a boy or girl who never grew up, who’s seen all there is to see and who above all, tries to be kind.
The temptation, when writing a Doctor Who fairy tales is to only go so far, to go along obvious lines, or to allow the Doctor to stay in fairy tale territory too long, to the point of believing the myth, rather than giving some kind of anchored science fantasy explanation (New Who, Series 5, we’re looking at you).
Mel-Evolent, by Simon A Forward does none of those things, but rather sneakily tempts you into thinking it might be about to.
There’s a certain panto-style punnery about the beginning – ‘Once upon a space and time…’which becomes more and more clearly a stylistic choice to set his story apart from the norm as the run-time unfolds. There are some classic Sixth Doctor and Mel gracenotes – carrot juice is here, the appalling nature of the Doctor’s taste in clothes, at least in Mel’s estimation, is here, the Doctor being stentorian for the sake of it and loving the sound of his own voice is here and so is the Doctor on that wretched exercise bike, and while they might feel like obvious markers, the further into the story you go, the more grateful you are for the anchors back to the era, and the more necessary you realise they were.
In fairy tale terms, there’s a magic mirror, and a vision of Mel Gone Mean that seems drawn, like the title, from Disney’s Maleficent, the bad fairy queen of the Sleeping Beauty story. There’s a certain joyousness in the idea of the ‘completely honest, and about as boring as they come’ Melanie Bush as a prodigiously-horned Queen of Evil, but it’s an image that’s given a pressing reality within proper Whoish lines of drama as armies of stunted minions start endangering the Doctor and Mel’s real world from the world beyond the mirror.
As the Doctor tries to Do Something Clever to arrest a crisis brought on by the dwarfish minions of darkness, it’s up to Mel to suit up in her best black badassery, and go through the looking glass to find out what the hell gives, and make it stop.
Even here, it would be easy to let the story coast in fairy tale terms: turn your back on your enemy to rob them of power, smash the mirror to stop them getting through, yadda yadda yadda. Forward continually pushes back against this temptation to laziness – he’s a writer who does his job, and does it well. There are more and more fairy tale allusions which it would be cruel to spoil for you, but along the way, there are tie-ins to things from Classic Doctor Who that allow you just a few seconds of warning that they’re coming, so you get the glow of recognition, of fandom, before marvelling at the ingenuity of the use to which the tie-ins are put. Forward delivers a story that goes beyond traditional fairy tales, to really nail the Doctor Whoness of his story to your consciousness, leaving you well and truly satisfied at the end of it all.
Bonnie Langford was one of the most poorly served companion-actresses in Classic Who, from her two-line character description, to her frequent reduction to boggling, screaming and asking ‘What’s that, Doctor?’ in scripts which left her little else to do.
Big Finish has worked for years to give her more to work with as an actress, and this Short Trip punches above its run-time as far as expansion of character is concerned. Langford for her part takes to this opportunity to go to the Dark Side like a duck to hoi sin, and especially when she comes face to face with her mirror-side dark doppelganger, there’s a sense of visual and vocal differentiation that’s very easy to imagine on screen. In fact, the combination of Forward’s descriptive prose for some areas of this trip into a weird realm, and Langford’s assured but Mel-breathy delivery, lets you lose yourself in the visuals of this audio short very easily, and rewards you for doing so with one of the more immersive Short Trips in recent times.
Overall, this is a barnstorming Doctor Who fairy tale, and among the best examples of its kind, because it goes that extra mile on every level – the story doesn’t rest on familiar fairy tale territory, but pushes beyond to give you imaginative surprises that make you think about them even after the story’s over. It’s a welcome return to Big Finish for a writer of whom we could stand to hear more, and an irresistible slice of Mel going to places you’d usually struggle to imagine her going. It’s early in the run yet, but Mel-Evolent could well become a highlight of the Short Trips’ eighth season. Tony Fyler