Doctor Who: The Middle – Starring Colin Baker, Miranda Raison, Lisa Greenwood, Sheila Reid, Mark Heap, Wayne Forester, Hollie Sullivan & Chloe Rickenbach. Written by Chris Chapman & Directed by Jamie Anderson – 2xCD / Download (Big Finish)
Let me begin by saying that I’ve always liked a “crowded” TARDIS. In the beginning, there were Ian, Barbara and Susan, a “three companion” dynamic that would be repeated several times throughout the programme’s history; Susan would be replaced by Vicki to keep the same structure, and later, the Second Doctor would travel with Ben, Polly and Jamie for a while. Even in the show’s latter years, the Fifth Doctor travelled with Adric, Nyssa and Tegan, and Turlough was also part of that setup for a little while after Adric was killed.
What I’m trying to say is that “the Doctor with his one, plucky assistant” formula that many people think is synonymous with the show only really occurred extensively with the Fourth, Sixth and Seventh Doctors (if you consider the UNIT family as de facto companions during the Third Doctor’s era). More often than not, there have been more than one companion; if there hasn’t been a trio; there has at least been a duo – Steven and Dodo, Jamie and Victoria/Zoe, Sarah and Harry, Tegan and Nyssa, Rose and Captain Jack, Amy and Rory.
And Big Finish have duplicated that dynamic with almost all the Doctors they use. Sometimes they utilize two original-to-audio companions, but often they add an original companion to one known from the TV series: Peri and Erimem, Ace and Hex, Charley and C’rizz, Nyssa and Brewster – and then Evelyn and Brewster, Liv and Helen.
And now there’s Flip and Constance. If you are like me, you probably thought we had seen the last of Lisa Greenwood’s delightful Philippa Jackson – “Flip” to her friends – when, in The Widow’s Assassin, the Doctor explained to Peri that he had parted amicably with her, leaving her to her wedding after the cliffhanger-like events at the end of Scavenger.
And yet it made a lot of sense for Flip to come back, particularly once the Doctor started travelling with Mrs. Constance Clarke. In many ways, Flip and Constance are diametric opposites, and yet they get on so well. Flip’s carefree attitude is a wonderful foil to Constance’s slightly stuffier demeanour. And Constance is able to “reel Flip in” from time to time, when she needs somebody to check her over-exuberant nature.
So why is this setup so important with regards to Big Finish’s latest triumphant Main Range story, The Middle? Certainly, as one continues to explore the adventures of the Sixth Doctor, Flip and Constance, it’s hard not to feel like one is witnessing a new, classic TARDIS team developing and solidifying. But it’s more than that. For the first time, Big Finish has been able to do a very particular kind of story with the Sixth Doctor, one they have not really been able to do before.
In The Middle, the Doctor, Flip and Constance arrive on the colony world of Formicia. Constance is about to turn 35, and Flip is determined to give her the shindig of a lifetime. However, almost immediately upon their arrival, the three time travellers begin to raise more than a few eyebrows. The thing is, they’re not really sure why. Most of the attention seems to be centred on the Doctor, and the only clue as to the nature of this unwanted apprehension is the fact that the entire population of this colony world appears to be…young. Young as in the under-35 crowd.
The Doctor’s anachronistic appearance, coupled with the rapidly approaching moment of Constance’s 35th birthday both conspire to separate our heroes, scattering them to three separate locales. It’s a trope that has often been used in Doctor Who, but never as effectively as in The Middle. Because there’s a very specific reason the Doctor, Flip and Constance wind up where they do, and it all has to do with a very specific characteristic of this strange, upside-down society.
Over the years, a number of very vocal critics have condemned an overly-large TARDIS crew (i.e. anything larger than one Doctor, one companion). But splitting up the main characters like this is one of the most effective ways to advance the plot; it was done to great effect in stories like Tomb of the Cybermen, Terminus, The Keys of Marinus and Kinda, (despite the fact that, in the latter story, Nyssa was kept completely out of the picture – the story was originally written before it was known that Sarah Sutton would be joining the TARDIS crew).
Here, the technique takes on a much more symbolic meaning, with Flip remaining at “the beginning”, Constance being moved to the story’s eponymous “middle”, and the Doctor being catapulted all the way to “the end”. And yet, through the colony world’s technology and its mysterious birthday customs, the three companions are still able to work in a strange kind of tandem, only partially aware of each other’s situation.
The Middle is, quite simply, one of the types of stories that Doctor Who does best. It is essentially an experiment in world building; the colony of Formicia doesn’t only form the backdrop of the story – in many ways, it is the story. The past, present and future of the colony all have a vital role to play, and it’s only through exploring what has gone before that the work of our heroes can coalesce into something world-changing.
Regulars Colin Baker, Lisa Greenwood and Miranda Raison are all in fine form, as are the guest cast. Hollie Sullivan in particular brings a vitality to the youth of Formicia in the form of Olivia, a young upstart who is much more than she seems. Both Sheila Reid’s and Wayne Forrester’s tragic octogenarians Janaiya and Roman bring a humanity to the elderly of Formicia, as does the other character played by Forrester: Callum, a father caught in “the middle”, just trying to reestablish contact with his daughter. And Mark Heap plays the Middleman, the sinister architect of the colony world’s strange setup, with a vicious, understated malevolence.
In addition to being solidly plotted by writer Chris Chapman – previously responsible for the one-episode The Memory Bank, featured in last year’s The Memory Bank and Other Stories – The Middle is a fairly slick production as well. It is tightly directed by Jamie Anderson, son of Supermarionation impresario Gerry Anderson. In addition to previously directing some of his father’s properties for Big Finish – Terrahawks and Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons, in particular – Jamie Anderson has recently made the foray into Doctor Who with The Waters of Amsterdam and the spectacular pure historical story The Peterloo Massacre. With The Middle he returns to his science-fiction roots, where he downplays the gradual reveals until the true horror of what is really going on in this strange world hits you like a ten-ton brick.
It’s interesting: on the day I first listened to all four episodes of The Middle, I also heard a documentary on CBC Radio about the increasing apathy with which many Western nations treat their elderly. This is a very timely story for many reasons; its emphasis on the experience of individuals in their advanced years strikes quite a chord, particularly if you have ever seen the way many of our geriatric patients are treated. In many ways, our elderly could be our greatest resource, and yet we seem to be content to lock them away in retirement homes and hospitals. What Formicia does with their septuagenarians and octogenarians is very different to what we do in the real world, but it’s certainly no less barbaric. And that’s when Doctor Who is at its best – when there is a subtle but crucial point to be made. The Middle doesn’t hit you over the head with it; instead, it lets the idea worm its way into your mind, so that you are thinking about it long after the story has ended. Peter McAlpine