Doctor Who: The Tenth Doctor Adventures Volume 3 – Starring David Tennant, Catherine Tate, Bernard Cribbins, Jacqueline King, Nicholas Briggs, Rakie Ayola, Kieran Bew & Stephen Critchlow. Written by James Goss, Jenny T Colgan & Roy Gill & Directed by Ken Bentley – 5xCD / Download (Big Finish)
That, in case you’re wondering, is what sets the Tenth Doctor’s time with Donna Noble and her family apart in the annals of 21st century Doctor Who as the high point. The chemistry of comic timing, chiefly between David Tennant and Catherine Tate, but with satellites of sharpness from Jacqueline King as Sylvia Noble and of adorable warmth from Bernard Cribbins as Wilf, all blending into a whole that makes them an utter joy to watch, and now to listen to as the Noble family takes its place firmly alongside the Doctor-Donna in the world of Big Finish audio.
That said, the whole family are only onboard for the first of the three stories in this new collection, No Place, by James Goss. Even so, they give serious value for your comedy money, in a story that smashes two reality TV formats together and ends up with a story about as grim and scary as the original Poltergeist movie, leavened by that comedy chemistry of the Tenth Doctor and the Noble family.
The formats are ghosthunting shows (or as the Doctor puts it here, ‘Carol Smilie screaming and pointing at dust’) and home makeover shows. The worrying thing is that the resultant show Goss invents, where so-called ‘haunted houses’ have their suspicious knocks and bangings and spooky light-flickers fixed by updated plumbing and electrics is staggeringly plausible. Opening the door of a haunted house and being confronted with the Nobles and the Doctor though is rather a Cruel and Unusual Punishment for presenter Justin, and James Goss goes on to front-load the story with glorious comedy of a kind it would be unsporting to spoil for you, while the horror of the story, by contrast, creeps up on you slowly, subtly and despite a number of absolutely full-on jump-scares which, remarkably, don’t diminish the tension but build it, Poltergeist-style, into something your brain would quite like to run the hell away from – except the Doctor’s there to see you through it. And Donna’s there to comfort you. And Sylvia’s got the kettle on and the biscuits out. And Wilf’s always ready to listen. That’s the balancing act at the heart of No Place – building to some pretty prickly, skin-crawling horror, but using the relationships of the Doctor and the Nobles to reassure you, and indeed Justin, that everything will be alright, no matter what it looks like or sounds like or whatever’s buried in the garden and maybe, just maybe, wants to return…
It’s the kind of gamble that could go spectacularly wrong in inexperienced hands, but James Goss writes the story so it doesn’t shoot its bolt of creeping horror with every jump-scare, and director Ken Bentley keeps a rein on the reveals too, so that you don’t want the story to let you go until everything’s safe and good again. The cast slip back into their roles as the Nobles and the Tenth Doctor with a tone that instantly takes you back to their on-screen time, and in particular the back-and-forth between the Doctor and Donna is a thing of pure joy, leaving you with a perfectly balanced horror-Who story, saved from the weight of its own grimness by the particular Doctor-companion combination who take us through the storyline of No Place.
Yes! Yes, yes, a thousand times yes and thank you Jenny T Colgan for One Mile Down. Not only does it take the Tenth Doctor and Donna to the thoroughly detailed underwater world of Vallarasee, not only does it deliver an eloquent discourse on the impact of tourism on indigenous populations, frequently bending a previous reality into an uncomfortable falsehood for the sake of those who wish to look at it through their preconceived notions of its purpose or beauty, and not only does it introduce us to the cutest Judoon it’s yet been our privilege to encounter, but arguably more important than all these things, it draws a line between interstellar, intertemporal coolness and a particular kind of plastic shoe with holes in. These are without any real-world justification in their appalling naffness and are, if there’s any justice in the world, probably the Nestene advance guard to destroy trendy people. Donna, naturally, loves them, but the Tenth Doctor is firm – no companion should wear plastic shoes with holes in. End of. Case closed. The End – Jenny T Colgan and the Tenth Doctor have spoken. Next!
Beyond the statement on plastic hole-filled shoes, about which it’s possible I’m slightly obsessing, One Mile Down feels like the kind of story it would have been possible to deliver during the Tenth Doctor and Donna era, though there are more immediately modern influences too – there’s a racist who happens to be quite good in a crisis, a cross-species couple with privilege clouding the vision of one of them, there’s an act of unbridled terrorism tied to what otherwise feels like a good cause, and there’s an eloquent example of how people driven principally by profit, rather than by beauty, or concern for their fellow creatures, tend to make nothing but fakery and mess.
Along the journey of the story, which has its beats as well placed as you’d expect from Jenny T Colgan, there’s an effective Doctor-Donna split, as they each have a strand of the adventure and distinct things to do in order to try and save thousands of people from an imminent disaster as nature takes back its own – with a little help from its more radical friends. That means you get the fun of Donna having to deal with the useful racist, while never being shy of telling him what he is, and the Doctor and the Little Judoon Who Could finding ways to turn the Judoon’s rigid adherence to rules of law into both an excuse and a methodology for saving the lives of non-Judoon. While opportunities to do so seem distinctly limited, it would be rather fun to follow this Judoon-in-training through its ongoing career, so see the difference that an early encounter with the bounciest of Doctors could make on even the most dogged of species.
You…probably don’t need me to tell you that The Creeping Death, by Roy Gill, is a bit of a spooky one. Aiming for rock and roll, the Doctor and Donna land in London in 1952, during the most deadly smog ever to hit the capital. Death suddenly stalks the city in a positively Victorian, wispy way – and then there are the aliens.
Roy Gill’s script has a distinctly Horror of Fang Rock feel – a bunch of disparate people, some of whom are grouped and know each other, some of whom don’t, are trying to find their way to home and safety, but between them and their everyday dreams lies predation, mystery, horror and death. And the Doctor. And Donna. Again, Gill skilfully splits up the Tardis team early on – easy to do with a handy smog – and sets them about comforting and helping those they meet along the way. When a people-possessing alien force reveals itself, the focus shifts from the simple aim of getting home to the rather more complicated and difficult business of doing everything that’s necessary to stop the alien’s malicious intent, and it builds with the trademark rising pulse of memorable Doctor Who to a climax that will satisfy, for all its vaguely familiar beats.
All told, the third set of Tenth Doctor Adventures touches three solid Russell T Davies grace notes – a story in the here and now, bringing in the companion’s family to help defeat an alien menace, a planet that’s very alien, with an environment that makes it a subtle take on the base-under-siege genre, and a historical alien escapade with plenty of creepiness and no fear of killing off characters just as we’ve got to know them. Each of the writers is clearly on impressive form here too, which makes it extremely hard to pick a favourite among the stories – the comedy and the insane balancing act in No Place probably makes it the most friendly for repeat listening, while One Mile Down has the feeling of only lacking the visuals to make it a full-on televised story. Then again, the persistent, Jaws-like pulse of creeping death in…erm…The Creeping Death makes you want to brave it again, and it does come with perhaps the largest cast of ‘genuinely quite nice’ people aside from the Tardis team and Donna’s family(!).
In essence then, there’s not a bum note here, and each of the stories will reward replaying on a semi-regular basis. Pick up The Tenth Doctor Adventures #3 and remember the days of that pinpoint, whizz-bang comic chemistry, the compassion of Donna, and the doing-what-needs-to-be-done dedication that forged the friendship of the Chiswick Temp and the Time Lord, underneath all their glorious bluster and laughs. Tony Fyler