Doctor Who: The Quantum Possibility Engine

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Doctor Who: The Quantum Possibility Engine – Starring Sylvester McCoy , Sophie Aldred, Bonnie Langford, Sean Carlsen, Toby Longworth, Wayne Forester & Jules de Jongh.  Written By Guy Adams. Directed by Jamie Anderson – 2xCD / Download (Big Finish)

Big Finish’s Main Range is currently in the throes of the longest run of Seventh Doctor stories it has ever done. Even in the days before releases occurred in “trilogies” featuring the various Main Range Doctors, the only Doctor to ever get a “chunk” of stories like this was Paul McGann, whose stories were originally released in “seasons”, nestled in amongst the other Main Range adventures. But this year, Big Finish have decided to finish off the year with its regular trilogy of Seventh Doctor stories, followed by not one, but TWO other tales: November’s long-anticipated Warlock’s Cross (the conclusion to this year’s multi-Doctor UNIT arc) and December’s Muse of Fire (which not only sees the return of a fan-favorite companion Hex, but also features trans-temporal adventuress Iris Wildthyme, played again with gusto by the ever-adored Katy Manning).

But before those two adventures help finish up the Main Range’s year (alongside The Hunting Ground, the first ina trilogy of Sixth Doctor stories), we have been treated to a delightful release to round off the regular Seventh Doctor trilogy. Guy Adams’ The Quantum Possibility Engine is a comic tour de force that makes perfect useof each cast member – both long-term as well as those in the guest cast – in order to weave a tale that has just the right amount of timey-wimeyness and use of parallel timelines.

For those who remember, the previous Main Range release ended on a head-scratching cliffhanger, with the Doctor’s loyal companion Melanie Bush incapacitating both the Doctor and Ace and hijacking the TARDIS to destinations unknown. As listeners, we’ve already guessed that this Melanie has a much shadier past then she had when she initially joined the Doctor on his travels. Having spent a large amount of time with con-man Sabalom Glitz, she has picked up a good deal of her former partner’s more “slippery” aspects, and much as we’d like, we can’t always be sure of her motives.

Case in point: within the opening few minutes of The Quantum Possibility Engine, Melanie arrives with the TARDIS at the interplanetary base of one Josiah W. Dogbolter, now President of the Solar System but just as slimy and as untrustworthy as we remember him. Of course, Dogbolter is not new to the Doctor Who universe; he has appeared time and again in the pages of Doctor Who Magazine’s comics and also showed up in the audios way back in release 33½ – The Maltese Penguin.

However, in this month’s story, Dogbolter’s nefarious plans go far beyond simply obtaining the Doctor’s TARDIS. The stranglehold he has over Melanie (due to her previous dealings with a race known as the Sperovores) is just the beginning. More importantly, it’s what he plans to do with the time machine that gets the Time Lords in such a huff, so much that they decide to send Celestial Intervention Agency Co-ordinator Narvin to get involved.

All in all, this release is a delightful cacophony of ideas smooshed together in a fun, tightly-knit package. Every so often, Big Finish makes a successful foray into the realm of Hitchhiker’s Guide-style comedy, and The Quantum Possibility Engine is, without a doubt, one of those times. It is a brilliant piece of satire from one of Big Finish’s most prolific (and most versatile) writers. From the long-awaited return of Josiah Dogbolter (played again with relish by Judge Dredd himself,the incomparable Toby Longworth), to the welcome addition of Co-ordinator Narvin to the Big Finish Main Range, this month’s adventure is such a fun romp. Dogbolter’s attempts to outwit a race known as the Krasi – known for their infatuation with the media and so obsessed with their public persona that they literally shoot different outcomes of each decision and confrontation with their video cameras – is a hoot, and provides enough of a parallel plot tothe Doctor’s escapades that absolutely everybody in the story isgiven more than enough to do. Jules de Jongh positively relishes her part as the Krasi’s Captain Regent, blocking Dogbolter’s attempts to outmaneuver her with every twist and turn.

Finally, mention has to be made of Wayne Forester’s performance as Dogbolter’s robot assistant Hob. Also extracted from the pages of Doctor Who Magazine, it quickly became apparent to this reviewer that it was a shame Forester had not appeared as Hob in The Maltese Penguin all those years ago, as he is a dead ringer for Peter Lorre’s devious Mr. Cairo from that story’s source material, The Maltese Falcon. Constantly scheming and backstabbing, the character of Hob is one of the most enjoyable aspects of this story, and the double-act that he and Dogbolter quickly establish is a joy to behold.

There are many other reasons The Quantum Possibility Engine should be placed in the company of such comic classics as The One Doctor and The Kingmaker. First and foremost is the writing: tightly plotted, the tale flip-flops between Mel’s attempts to help her fellow travelling companions reclaim the TARDIS from aboard Dogbolter’s space station, and the escapades of the Doctor, Ace and Narvin as they navigate a recently-created reality in which each of them occupies a fairly mundane role in the everyday workings of the planet Earth. By placing each character in such different circumstances – Narvin is a technical wizard working for a multinational conglomerate, Ace is a police officer and the Doctor himself a homeless vagabond – Adams gives all involved the opportunity to stretch their acting muscles and discover more subtle or hidden facets of their respective characters.

And the cast most definitely rises to the occasion. It’s obvious that Sophie Aldred and Sylvester McCoy, having played the same characters for well over thirty years now, enjoy any chance to “mix things up a bit”. There is a very tender scene between the two of them in which Ace, unaware of who she or the Doctor really are, attempts to help her old mentor get off the streets and into a job. But the real show-steale ris Sean Carlsen in his role as a frantic Narvin, working in research and development for a machinery and tech company. There’s a wonderful scene where Narvin – attempting to build a timing switch into an oven – can’t understand why his company doesn’t have such “basic equipment” as a charged vacuum resonator, a vortex manipulator or an atom accelerator.

And then there’s Mel. For the first time, we are really seeing the fallout from her time with Sabalom Glitz. And while The Quantum Possibility Engine acts as a platform for her redemption, we the listeners can’t deny that Melanie Bush is no longer that sweet health food nut from Pease Pottage. This is a darker, more manipulative Mel, and it will be interesting to see how she develops in the future.

It’s become harder over the years for individual Big Finish stories to stand out; with the sheer number of CDs being released each month, it’s more and more difficult to keep track of some of the really good ones. This is probably the reason why, when audiophiles are asked to name some of their all-time favourite audio stories, they usually pick adventures from the first 50 releases. More and more, stories are being told in the same format as modern television; fast, exposition-laden tales under 45 minutes, usually as part of a collection in a box set. But The Quantum Possibility Engine tells a different story: that there is still a definite place for “old-style”, serial-based Doctor Who. This is not an adventure that ever would have worked in a three-quarters-of-an-hour slot. And the fact that we are still given the chance to hear stories unfold across four episodes is something of a miracle, and a very welcome one at that. Peter McAlpine

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