Doctor Who: The Eighth Of March – Starring Sophie Aldred, Lisa Bowerman, Louise Jameson, Alex Kingston, Neve McIntosh, Ingrid Oliver, Jemma Redgrave, Catrin Stewart, Dan Starkey, James Joyce, Tracy Wiles, Lucy Pickles, Julie Teal, Catherine Skinner, Lewis Rae, Orlando Gibbs, Rosemary Ashe, Robert Gill, Julie Atherton, Nigel Fairs, Tom Bell, Louise Faulkner, Alix Dunmore, Dan Blaskey and featuring Sylvester McCoy. Written by Lisa McMullin, Lizzie Hopley, Gemma Langford & Sarah Grochala & Directed by Helen Goldwyn – CD / Download (Big Finish)
Let’s get one thing out of the way at the outset. If you think that women shouldn’t be starship captains, superheroes or previously-male Time Lords, this probably isn’t the set for you. On the other hand, if you’re one of those fans who use the ‘Why not just create new female characters instead of changing previously-male characters into women?’ argument – you’re on. Big Finish has called your bluff to celebrate International Women’s Day, and it’s done it in spectacular fashion.
The Eighth of March is a collection of four stories, putting some of the women of the Who-universe front and centre. Each story is written by a woman, the whole collection is directed by a woman, and while it’s a technical stretch to say all the main heroes and villains are women with the exception of Strax the Sontaran, certainly all the underlying issues against which they fight and triumph have their analogues in the real world fight for equality between the sexes – which still goes on in 2019.
The result is a breath of bright, fresh air as sharp as Madame Vastra’s sword, as arch as a Bernice Summerfield quip, as twinkly as a River-wink and as brilliant as Petronella Osgood. Strap in, people, we’re about to have some fun.
Emancipation, by Lisa McMullin is a gorgeously rich, layered face-slap of issue-flagging, woven into a hell of a story. In the first place, it finally brings together two absolute archetypes, Professor River Song and Leela of the Sevateem. Their different approaches to dealing with the universe, and the fact that River knows of Leela, but Leela only recognises a familiar spirit in the mad-haired, motormouthed archaeologist, make for initial sparks, but then the two fall into a productive sync, a way of working together that acknowledges their individual strengths (especially as this is Leela in Gallifrey mode, more rule-conscious than she used to be, but invigorated by River’s more ‘What the hell?’ approach to universal gittery). The challenge they face is absolutely carved out of feminist issues – while the villain of the piece is female, she’s as arch and evil as any historical king or grand vizier, and the institutions she upholds have distinctly male counterparts in our own world. The idea of two princesses (yes, really, River and Leela are rescuing princesses from dungeons – take that, patriarchal fairy tales!) being sacrificed for the good of the state and the dictates of religion is disturbingly real in a world which still includes honour killings. The idea that their bodies and lives are not their own to control is potent in a world which is rolling back women’s healthcare and which still includes female genital mutilation as a cultural practice. Lisa McMullin even brings the issue of coerced consent into play, as the Princesses Myrahla are coerced to vocally collude in their own destruction, while their minds scream the absolute opposite.
It’s important to understand that the feminist underpinnings are not as blatantly front and centre as I’ve made them sound – they’re there if you want to pick up on them, but Lisa McMullin has actually written a cracking, fast-paced fairytale princess-rescue with an evil queen, an innocent victim, quiiiite a bit of time-travel, and even, importantly, a bit of post-Happily Ever After realism. You can listen to Emancipation perfectly easily as a time-travel buddy movie with the irrepressible River and the more cautious Leela, and there are proper consequences to River’s mis-reading of a crucial situation here to give you moments of in-story pause and weight. Or, if you have your checklist of ‘Stuff That Still Needs Tackling In 2019’ to hand, you can also listen to the story as a full-on feminist dialectic. The genuinely exquisite thing is not that it works either way, but that it works both ways, and leaves you with so many pinball-lights going off in your head, it sets you up for the spirit of the set, while you realise you’ve just heard River and Leela in White Knight mode, rescuing princesses from evil queens, and then dealing with the consequences of that action in their own unique way.
The Big Blue Book by Lizzie Hopley takes us back into New Adventures territory, with Ace and Bernice Summerfield battling the Librarian From Hell. While the Seventh Doctor has swanned off on a train journey, Bennie and Ace go undercover at a Liverpool university, Bennie doing her archaeology thang, and Ace acting as the world’s most unlikely cleaner (‘Nitro-9 – BOOM! And the dirt is gone…’ – sorry, mind wandering…). What follows is a suitably esoteric, mindscape-heavy tale which fits perfectly well with previous stories featuring this pairing, while allowing Ace the bulk of the intellectual heavy lifting, showing us (but more importantly showing herself) that she can deal with things that would normally be out of her pay grade if there were a Bennie or a Doctor around to do them for her. There are messages here too – again, Ace proves she’s more capable than perhaps she believes, but there’s also an undercurrent of people using other people’s intelligence and ideas for their own ends, and leaving them burned out rather than rewarded, which may well chime with girls and women in every kind of job there is.
Mostly though, this is first and foremost a problem-solving drama, with the responsibility of life and death and right and wrong on one young woman’s shoulders, showing how she copes with the incredible sequence of annoyances, difficulties and threats that keep coming her way. Basically, it’s The Martian, but starring Ace. And a bit more off the wall and bookish. With alien librarians and criminals, and set in Liverpool. Alright fine, it’s actually quite different from The Martian, but the point is this is Ace having to work a string of problems with science and courage and a different type of bravery to the kind she knows she has.
It gets perhaps just a little exhausting in the last couple of rounds, but by then, you’re so invested in hearing how Ace wins the day that that’s at most a minor irritant, and when Ace and Bennie are re-united, there is enough air-punching satisfaction to make the whole drama worthwhile.
Inside Every Warrior by Gemma Langford is, apart from its rightful place in an International Women’s Day release, the ‘pilot’ for the Paternoster Gang series. Not gonna lie – I have an enormous soft spot for the Paternoster Gang, because, well, what’s not to love about a ninja detective lizard, her wife-cum-maid and a comedy Sontaran, running around Victorian England solving space-crime?
There’s nothing about this story that particularly screams ‘pilot’ either, which is a good decision. We’ve seen them do their thing on screen, and here we’ve dropped in on them again, but with the focus firmly on the gang themselves, in the absence of any moody Time Lords. The story – essentially A Victorian Werewolf In London – is more complex than it at first appears, and when we discover what makes the werewolf go…erm…were, there’s a degree of ‘Huh…didn’t see that coming’ to it that takes the tale to a different level. Mostly though, what we’re dealing with here is a famous scientist treating his own maid like…well, like a terrorised partner, and the various reactions of the gang to his behaviour as they investigate a break-in at his lab and the theft of some all-important notes by…apparently…a werewolf. There’s everything you want from a Paternoster Gang story here – there’s Strax arguing with the horse and threatening to use some thoroughly bonkers-sounding weaponry, there’s Jenny’s forthright adoration of her wife, there’s Vastra standing up to sexist idiots, there’s some pretty cool sword fighting, and there’s an ultimate re-statement of what links the team together, which is love, respect, friendship and an additional almost parental care of one another, the ‘oddities’ in a society that wouldn’t accept them individually, but that can’t afford to dismiss them together. That ultimately is the point of the title, and a crucial point of difference between the Paternoster Gang and the villains of the piece. It’s worth keeping your ears open as you go through Inside Every Warrior, because what was going on and what is going on might well be different things, and if you’re not tracking, the subtleties might slip by you among all the werewolves and aliens and misogynists and the Truly Hideous Thing that happens to Strax. Ultimately though, Inside Every Warrior announces the coming of a new Victorian series that, on the evidence of this story, will come to stand alongside Jago & Litefoot for fun, chills and affection from fans. Oh and incidentally, whoever composed the theme music deserves a raise – personally I want to be able to download that little beauty. (Hmm – download album of Big Finish themes, anyone? Missy? Jenny? UNIT, Jago & Litefoot, War Doctor, War Master…and so on?)
And to finish this set, we’re with the new UNIT crowd, with three strong women front and centre – Kate Stewart, Petronella Osgood and Jacqui McGee, journalist and increasingly strong player in the UNIT-adjacent team, played by Tracy Wiles. Four strong and brilliant women actually, because we’re moving forward into Capaldi-era UNIT with Zygon Osgood fully on board here. Narcissus, by Sarah Grochala, is a story of insidious social standards of ‘beauty’ and how they can be used to exclude people from love, sex, fun and potential futures. There’s a newish dating app on the market which only allows the ‘beautiful people’ to meet one another.
Just from the concept, you know that’s gonna be run by all kinds of wrong-uns, don’t you?
And so it is, but for reasons more subtle than the fury that’s raging in your brain right now. While not strictly in any sense a female-specific targeted app – Captain Josh Carter, for example, is the first of the UNIT crew to fall prey to it – the pressure on women in society to look, dress, trim, pluck, prepare and perfect themselves to some notional social standard of ‘beauty’ is exponentially higher and broader throughout women’s lives than it is throughout men’s, and while absolutely refusing to beat anyone over the head with that idea, Sarah Grochala’s script allows you to understand it, as Jacqui, Kate and both the Osgoods all feel the effects of the alien skulduggery that needs people to believe in their own objective beauty, and mercilessly stokes their sense of self-pride in order to trap them and use them for alien ends.
Petronella has a particularly bad day at the office when she encounters the Narcissus app, which takes some unravelling at the end. It’s highly important unravelling, speaking to an even more insidious ‘need’ that’s very definitely targeted at women in our society – the need to be ‘completed’ by someone else – so make sure you don’t miss it, otherwise you’re just left with aliens being mean to our Osgood.
Narcissus is a neat, pacey UNIT adventure that allows us to focus on the leading women of everyone’s favourite United Nations military arm, in the absence of Sam Bishop and with Josh Carter captured almost immediately by the app and its alien data-fiddlers.
Overall, this is an enormously satisfying set of stories, each with their own individual tone, paced for fun, meaning, and storytelling. They open up windows into the lives of some of the best and most engaging characters in the Doctor Who universe, give you plenty of adventure, from the physical to the intellectual to the trans-temporal and back again, and for those who want the strong feminist thread in their International Women’s Day stories, they deliver on that level too. The temptation is not only to request more of the same next March, but also to stud the year with other celebratory, groundbreaking, awareness-raising sets in future years – 28th of June (date of Stonewall – come on, you know the Doctor was there!) to highlight the fight for equality of sexuality (Jack Harkness, River, Vastra, Jenny etc), a set for Black History Month, etc.
Could such sets be economically viable?
They could if, as with The Eighth of March, they lead with story, and character, and stakes, and pacing, while never shrinking from the issues underpinning the struggles. Above all, The Eighth of March stands on the quality of its writing, the direction of Helen Goldwyn, and knock-down drag-out heart-lifting performances all the way down the cast sheet. More please! Tony Fyler