Doctor Who: The Eleventh Doctor Chronicles – Starring Jacob Dudman, Eleanor Crooks, Danny Horn, Simon Fisher-Becker & Nathalie Buscombe. Written by AK Benedict, Simon Guerrier, Roy Gill & Alice Cavender. Directed by Helen Goldwyn – 4xCD / Download (Big Finish)
Woohoo! It’s the Eleventh Doctor at Big Finish!
With…out Matt Smith in it…Oh.
There’s a sense about the whole ‘Chronicles’ idea at Big Finish of ‘Why would you do that?’ – they’re stories featuring New Who Doctors, without any of the actors who played the New Who Doctors in, and it’s worth bearing in mind, there are fans who are annoyed that William Hartnell and Jon Pertwee have been recast, so the idea of recasting lead actors who are still alive is enough to make them heap their Big Finish CDs together in a pile and set light to them.
Well, perhaps not quite, but almost.
For those who have less of a problem with there being more Doctor Who in the world, the Chronicles are a chance to tell full New Who stories while getting around the real-life issues of actors having post-Who careers. While both David Tennant and Matt Smith have been agreeable to the idea of returning to their Doctors at Big Finish, and Tennant has so far done so twice (or twice and a bit if you’re in the know), getting recording windows with New Who Doctors post-Who is agonisingly difficult. Step forward, Jacob Dudman, who voiced Tennant’s Doctor in the Tenth Doctor Chronicles, and here elbows out all contenders to also play the Eleventh Doctor.
Let’s get this out of the way before we go any further. The Eleventh Doctor is a role Dudman appears to have been born to play. His Eleventh Doctor goes beyond uncanny, and he could quite easily play the role for decades to come, because while he’s technically not Matt Smith, if, say, Matt Smith lost all scrap of his voice, he could hire Dudman as a replacement voice box, to go everywhere with him and say the things he needed to say.
It would be weird, certainly, but he could do it, and apart from the ‘two bodies’ thing, nobody’d much notice the difference.
So with that firmly understood, welcome back to the world of the Eleventh Doctor. This first Eleventh Doctor Chronicles set takes us through the Eleventh Doctor’s life and friendships on the principle of a buffet – a little of this, a little of that, giving an overall picture of the Time Lord’s essential self.
The Calendar Man by AK Benedict is a classic Eleven and Amy story, with that kind of mythic fairy tale sense of their early adventures. A colony world with a problem it doesn’t remember it has, where people go missing in the mist, and then disappear from the memories of the world, including their families. The Calendar Man is coming for them, and only one young woman seems immune.
Benedict makes the Calendar Man something rather interesting – a villain that can even scare the Doctor, in a story that captures that sense of early Eleven whimsy and darkness. The solution relies on the Doctor’s personal bravery, but equally on the actions and characters of his friends, and there’s a solid heart-punch in the forgetful people’s forgetfulness too. A classic switcheroo with a twist at the end gives you plenty to grab hold of, and also some pretty heavyweight dramatic consequences. The Calendar Man kicks the set off with a cracking mystery and some honest personality-beats, and Dudman, as mentioned, is so good as the Eleventh Doctor, it’s practically identity theft.
The Top Of The Tree, by Simon Guerrier is a challenging one.
Challenging in that while most Doctor Who stories are horizontal in their drama, Guerrier brings the Eleventh Doctor and Kazran Sardick (Danny Horn reprising his TV role) into a tree-world, where there’s a strong potential for ghastliness and danger almost everywhere you look. It’s a whole ‘Ecosystem Of Death’ deal, with bravery, sacrifice, more than a touch of horror and the kind of antithetical environment that frankly only Mother Nature (and now Simon Guerrier) would create, to put living creatures through the mill in order to sharpen their instincts and force them to adapt. When Kazran and the Doctor get separated from the Tardis, run into a species of evolving humanoids and discover that almost everything they touch is either horribly dangerous or downright lethal, they’re going to have to climb for their lives. The relentlessly dangerous environment of The Top Of The Tree, and the psychological trauma of some of the things we find out on our way through the story, makes it quite an exhausting listen, because by the end of it, you feel like you too have been through the evolutionary mill, but Guerrier, like Benedict, gives a great Eleventh Doctor – particularly in terms of having conversations in which he assumes the most likely response of the other party, based on his own somewhat skewed but endearingly barking mad outlook on life. Horn’s return is always going to be fun, because the Kazran Diaries (ooh – possible new spin-off, BF?) will always have that Easter Egg potential to Who-fans – we saw only snippets of his time with the Doctor in A Christmas Carol, so new Kazran adventures will always be a bit special, filling in the gaps in our head-canon. The Top of the Tree is one that you’ll take a deep breath before re-listening to, but one that you’ll want to revisit for the character-work, despite the exhaustingly vertical storytelling and the sadness along the way.
Ohh, Dorium Maldovar. Who doesn’t love Dorium Maldovar? He’s clever and waspish and blue, for goodness’ sake, not loving Dorium Maldovar should probably be illegal.
Hardly surprising then that bringing Simon Fisher-Becker, the man beneath the Maldovar, into official Big Finish stories is one of the better decisions the company’s made this year. He’s absolutely one of the best things in The Light Keepers, by Roy Gill.
There are some pretty interesting issues tackled in the story – you could argue there are comments on fracking in there, as well as the rights of indigenous people. Mostly though, if we’re honest, it’s Fisher-Becker’s Dorium and the chance to learn more about him, while having him be spectacularly cross with the Eleventh Doctor, that will nail The Light Keepers to your ears and make you want to come back to it. Dudman and Fisher-Becker together are superb, a galactic odd couple whose dialogue is beautiful and hilarious.
The actual Big Bad in The Light Keepers is a returning enemy, and it’s learned a new trick since the last time we heard it. Whether it works or not partly depends on whether you thought it worked originally, but Gill certainly gives the new twist enough vigour that it feels like it has a reason to be at the heart of things here.
‘Jane Austen. Amazing writer, a brilliant comic observer, and—strictly amongst ourselves—a phenomenal kisser.’
So said the ever-incorrigible Clara Oswald.
If you ever wanted to hear the story in which Clara kissed Jane (at least for what seems the like the first time)…buckle up, space-babies, because Alice Cavender has you covered in False Coronets.
This is not, however, some internet fan-fiction where Jane and Clara get their smooch on for the sake of it. It’s a kickass ‘time’s gone wrong’ story of Regency alien nastiness, and what might have happened if England had followed France’s lead and lopped off the heads of its aristocrats in a big revolution.
Anti-revolutionary propogandist-in-chief? Your own, your very own Jane Austen, locked in a cell and awaiting execution, before she had a chance to write all the books that Clara loves so much. And so, as much to put right this affront to literature as to do the history-saving thing, the Eleventh Doctor and Clara skip back to try and find out what’s gone wrong, collapse the living botheration out of the revolutionary timeline and get home in time for tea and Persuasion.
It’s a complicated one, this, but that’s what you get with alternative timeline stories. Nevertheless, the combination of Cavendar’s relentless commitment to never be boring, Dudman’s continuing quest to put the actual Matt Smith out of a job (just checking – who is it who’s starring as The Duke of Edinburgh in the new series of The Crown?), and the bright, engaging voice-work of Nathalie Buscombe as Miss Austen means you feel like you’re in a sparkling quadrille – there may be twirls and partner-swapping and bowing galore, but it’s always bright, and controlled, and going somewhere interesting. In a more run-of-the-mill collection, False Coronets would be an eeeeasy stand-out. Here though, with more than something to recommend every story, it punches at least at the weight of the other three. And then, y’know, it has Clara kissing Jane Austen. So…there’s that too.
The Eleventh Doctor Chronicles is, for our money, the brightest, most energetic, and most fun of the Chronicles sets so far, and while Dudman is a scarily convincing Tenth Doctor in the absence of David Tennant, his Eleventh Doctor takes personification to almost absurd new levels. While more Eleventh Doctor Chronicles might conceivably hurt somebody’s feelings, somewhere, hey wouldn’t hurt ours in the slightest.
Cough, cough Eleventh Doctor and Strax, anyone? Tony Fyler