Doctor Who: Short Trips: The Authentic Experience – Written by Dan Starkey, Performed by Nicola Bryant & Directed by Lisa Bowerman – Download (Big Finish)
There are reasons to love the work of everyone involved in bringing The Authentic Experience into the world. Writer Dan Starkey is TV’s favourite comedy Sontaran, Strax, and one of the most reliable, versatile voice-actors in the Big Finish ‘repertory’ company. Nicola Bryant, who has played companion Peri Brown off and on for decades, and who both narrates and ‘stars’ in The Authentic Experience, shows off an enormous versatility of performance across the course of the story, contrasting her more everyday reading voice with the higher-pitched American tones she uses for the Sixth Doctor’s favourite botanist. And director Lisa Bowerman is a stalwart of the company when it comes to both acting and directing, and here, she delivers pace and atmosphere to a tale which is heavily Peri-focused.
It’s hard to admit then, but the result of all this is rather less than the sum of its parts. The Authentic Experience is not by any means a bad story. It’s more that it quickly becomes a guessable one, so your imagination spools ahead to the end rather faster than the run-time does, creating an artificial sense that the story is slow and padded, a handful of scenarios stitched together for the sake of showing Peri in different lives and outfits and moods between Point A and Point B.
The story relies heavily – at least at the start – on you not understanding what’s behind it all, but the peculiarities it uses to achieve that automatically work to its own disadvantage, because they make you look for the tricks, and most science-fiction fans will guess them quickly, only to have them confirmed as the action spools out.
The central plot-device is a time-honoured one, having more than a little in common with Carnival of Monsters. But even to tell you what the device is would unravel the first ten minutes for you.
There are plots throughout the history of Doctor Who based on machines going wrong or machines simply doing things the Doctor considers monstrous, and him battling to shut them down. The machine which allows Peri to experience the varieties of weirdness which make up the majority of the story, to be fair to Dan Starkey, is an interesting take on those plots. That said, there are elements studded throughout the storyline which make insufficient sense when opened up to the scrutiny of any proper geek, the most nitty-gritty of which is that the people who sign up for the ‘Authentic Experience’ can enter that experience individually, but the Doctor determines they can only be brought out of it en masse, and through the actions of Peri. The reason for that never feels sufficiently explained, which adds to that sensation of things happening the way they do ‘because we want to tell you this story,’ rather than because of any particular internal consistency within the plot.
Bryant works gamely to create an immersion in the atmosphere of several different environments in the story, and she gives a performance that certainly carries the listener through to the end. She’s helped along by Bowerman’s direction and the sound design, but at the end of it all, you’re left with the sensation that you’ve heard the story of an irritating afternoon in the Doctor and Peri’s time-travelling life, rather than a story that demanded to be told.
That said, that’s almost the remit of the Short Trips series – to give us additional slices of life on board the Tardis, shorter stories that show us the Doctor and his friends dealing with the adventures where alien Armageddon isn’t necessarily the order of the day. The Authentic Experience certainly delivers on that level – its flaw is that by allowing listeners to guess its twists ahead of time, it ends up feeling like a Short Trip that’s nevertheless rather longer than it needs to be. Tony Fyler