Doctor Who: The Lure of the Nomad – Starring Colin Baker, George Sear, Matthew Holness, Susie Riddell, Ruth Sillers, Jonathan Christie, Anna Barry & Dan March. Written by Matthew J. Elliott & Directed by John Ainsworth – CD / Download (Big Finish)
It’s rare that my thoughts about an audio change so drastically somewhere in the middle of the production. Usually, I find that I can get a “feel” for a story quite early on; there are so many familiar tropes in Doctor Who that it’s usually not difficult to determine what kind of story is being presented: Space opera? Base-under-siege? Pure historical? Each storytelling convention has its own set of rules and devices, and often you can tick them off as if they were part of a checklist.
The Lure of the Nomad, on the other hand, is a strange one. Right from the get-go, it seems to break a lot of the rules. Rarely have we had a story where we are completely unfamiliar with the companion, but this month’s Main Range story works on the premise that the Doctor met his new travelling assistant in an unheard story prior to this one. This has only been tried a few times before (and interestingly enough, a number of them involved Colin Baker’s Doctor): Melanie Bush was introduced “mid-ride”, as she was part of the “future” segment of The Trial of a Time Lord. Mrs. Constance Clark was first heard in The End of the Line, the first segment of The Sixth Doctor: The Last Adventure before we eventually went back and heard her origin story in Criss-Cross. And Paul McGann’s first Time War box set began with a companion whose name and backstory seemed to be constantly shifting.
Such is the case with Mathew Sharpe (“Mathew” with one “t”, “Sharpe” with an “e”, as he’s so fond of saying), the Sixth Doctor’s latest companion. A spacecraft pilot, ostensibly rescued by the Doctor in an earlier adventure, Mathew is both naïve and a bit gung-ho, having gotten a few adventures under his belt. But there is an enigma there, something about this latest assistant that doesn’t completely make sense…something that – it is hoped – will eventually be addressed.
The Doctor and Matthew arrive on a massive derelict, what appears to have been a colony ship but is now being re-fitted as an interplanetary hotel by capitalist mogul Eric Drazen. But something has gone wrong: the Makara, squid-like creatures in a biomechanical exoskeleton who were the “grunts” in the refitting operation, have suddenly started murdering any intruders on the spacecraft. What’s more frightening is the fact that the Makara seem to be very aware of what they are doing and want to have no part in it; rather, their exoskeletons have been hacked by some unseen force, leaving the creatures as helpless pawns in somebody else’s attack.
Of course, the list of possible suspects isn’t all that helpful. There’s Eric Drazen himself, as well as Esther Brak, the journalist who has come aboard to document Drazen’s project. And then there is Willoway, the interior designer who exists solely as a gaseous cloud, contained within a mannequin-like bio-suit. How the events on the vessel are linked to an infamous colony ship called the Nomad, an adventure in the Doctor’s not-too-distant past and a mysterious but deadly phantom army known as the Myriad is what ties everything together.
The Lure of the Nomad starts out as a fairly standard base-under-siege story, albeit with a number of unanswered questions about some of the characters and their intentions. But about halfway to two-thirds of the way into the tale, there’s a massive paradigm shift that transforms this delightful audio into a different story entirely. Game-changing plot twists are not necessarily unheard of in Big Finish, but they rarely have such a massive effect on not only the story itself, but also the Doctor and his future adventures.
There are many reasons why The Lure of the Nomad is an audio you absolutely don’t want to miss, but one of the biggest ones is the characters, individuals who are all not only incredibly original, but fully fleshed-out, completely three-dimensional creations. Drazen, brilliantly brought to life by Matthew Holness, starts as a bit of a pastiche of the “heartless capitalist”, but throughout the course of the story he becomes much more, a fully sympathetic character with a strength that even the Doctor envies at the end. Susan Riddell’s Esther Brak seems straightforward enough at the beginning, but becomes much more mysterious and complex as the story progresses. Colin Baker is in fine form, and George Sear as new assistant Mathew Sharpe presents us with one of the most complex companions since Peter Davison’s Doctor met Turlough. But the absolute highlight of the piece has got to be Ruth Sillers’ Willoway, a life form composed entirely of gas, crammed inside a bodysuit that looks like a “clear mannequin”. Willoway is responsible for re-designing the interior of the massive derelict; her love of all things “solid and beautiful” makes for a fascinating creature, someone who is absolutely titillated by the Sixth Doctor’s wardrobe, and longs for nothing more than to immerse herself in his beautiful, curly hair.
The Lure of the Nomad is an entirely original creation, a story that doesn’t fit into any pre-determined mold, but rather one that goes off in its own startling but wholly authentic direction. And though it drops clues early on in order to tease its ultimate destination – one that deals with not only a threat to the entire universe, but also time slips, phantom armies and a decidedly beautiful green sun – it’s the journey to this objective that is the true prize. Don’t miss this one. Peter McAlpine