Donna Noble: Kidnapped! – Written by James Goss, Matt Fitton, Jacqueline Rayner & John Dorney. Starring Catherine Tate, Niky Wardley, Jacqueline King, Dan Starkey & Directed by Barnaby Edwards – 5xCD / Download (Big Finish)
There was never a chance I’d do anything other than love this set. Donna Noble’s my favourite New Who companion, and she’s up there in the top five from almost sixty years, so more of her, on audio, slotted in between her TV adventures? No brainer – yes please, and more soon if it’s all the same to you.
But in the event that you’re not a Donna Noble fan, two things are true. First, I’m not sure we can be friends anymore – and you certainly can’t have the good biscuits. And second, this set has to act as a proof of concept for you that Donna, like Jenny, and Christina, and Charley Pollard, and Lucie Bleedin’ Miller, deserves her own set, rather than her adventures being merely a money-maker for Big Finish.
I’d argue it does that straight out of the box in Out Of This World by Jacqueline Rayner, because not only does this have the feel of on-screen episodes like Partners In Crime, with Donna and a pal investigating situations that turn out to be alien as all-get-out, which is terrific fun in its own right, but it deals sympathetically with Sylvia, Donna’s mum. This collection of adventures is set when Donna takes a break from swanning about the universe shouting at people after the events of Silence In The Library/Forest Of The Dead, meaning she has her own issues to get over – believing that Donna Noble had finally got it right (as she sees it), with the hunky husband certainly, but more than that, oh so much more, with the children, the mundane, wonderful receptacles of all the love that Donna is capable of, and then having all of that sucked away from her, leaving her as she was, as she is, still capable, still on some levels yearning to share that love, but remembering the pull of them, the ache of belonging to them utterly, through love and pain and the smell of their hair. She needs a break from time and space after an experience like that, but at the same time, Sylvia has just lost her husband of forty years and her grief is still raw, still a touch on the desperate, vicious side, not wanting to lose anything more in her life, and certainly not to have her girl fly away into danger with a blithe, chirpy madman in a box, perhaps to get killed in the big black void of it all, perhaps never coming home again.
It would be too soon, in the first story of the first box set of Donna adventures, for there to be anything quite so magnanimous as a meeting of minds between Donna and Sylvia, but Jacqueline Rayner does as much as their timeline will let her to have them acknowledge each other, the reality of their pain, the truth of it – and she does it all while telling a story that will actually make you laugh out loud.
As part of a plan to bring her out of herself, and also to anchor her on Earth, Sylvia invites Donna’s old school friend, Nat, to come and remind her of all the good things that an ordinary life can involve. Annnnnd then she overplays her hand, by getting Donna involved in a speed dating night. The banter between Donna and Sylvia is screen-accurate and then some, the relationship between Donna and Nat is essentially the friendship that exists between Catherine Tate and Niky Wardley, who’ve known each other for 20 years and change, so it bristles with inviting warmth and banter, and the speed dating night from hell is peppered with spectacular, explosive, funny lines as Donna introduces herself to her would-be suitors. That at least one of them is probably an alien bodysnatcher in the most literal sense is just additional fun (though when you bring in Dan Starkey as an unpleasant vivisectionist and Anthony Howell as the smoothest hunk on the planet, you’re going to have audio fun anyway). Adding the fabulous Isla Blair as Marge, the organiser of date night, means you get a cast rich in vocal talent, and Rayner’s script hits all the right notes, and then gives you lots of fun grace-notes into the bargain. For all she needs a break from the weirdness and potential pain of the wider universe, the awakened Donna Noble can’t stop sniffing out trouble – especially trouble with an alien tang about it. While Nat’s a new addition, Niky Wardley of course is no stranger to Big Finish, having played Eighth Doctor companion Tamsin Drew, and here she throws herself into the role of the companion’s companion, balancing Donna’s changed nature with her own brand of what-the-hell-is-this-now? gobsmackery at the weirdness of Donna’s life and the pace and the power at which she lives it.
Aliens on speed dating. Donna Noble, Sylvia Noble, Natalie Morrison and aliens on speed dating, written by Jacqueline Rayner, balanced like Sylvia’s perfect golf swing on the arc of fabulous bantering humour and soft, sad, human, recovering pain, with a whacking great sniff of adventure along the way? Oh hell to the yes and twice on Sundays. The first story out of the box here is a symphony of pleasure for Donna-fans, but more than that, it offers the potential of some serious character and relationship development between Donna and Sylvia – it won’t go beyond the on-screen spikiness they had, but it might do more to add notes to Sylvia’s eventual semi-roar at the Doctor about the wonder that was Donna.
We won’t spoil the transition for you from home with Sylvia in Out Of This World to Spinvasion, by John Dorney, but suffice it to say it follows a tried and tested Doctor Who format – Nat’s first brush with aliens was on Earth, and for her second she goes into space for an alien invasion that’s quickly superseded by an alien invasion. In Dorney’s joyously satirical story, rather than face the hardcore resistance of invaded life-forms, an alien species has invaded Valdacki by hiring the best PR firm on the planet, and having the invasion spun for them as a series of relentlessly positive newscasts, media releases and guided, planted stories – hoorah, we’ve been invaded, more time in the factory working like slaves. Hoorah, production targets have been increased, a greater chance to prove we’re not slackers like some people. Hoorah, there are rockets of death falling on the slackers, the scroungers and those who take bread out of our hard-working mouths…
You get the picture? In fact, Spinvasion probably started out as a sharper and more pointed satire than it’s ended up as, because now it more or less sounds like…well, any random Tuesday, to be fair. The ability of spin to take you beyond accepted concepts of decency, community, common endeavour or common sense and into division, self-interest and ultimate self-deception is a thing with which we’ve been living for years now, so to hear it taken to perhaps the next-but-one degree as a tool of alien oppression, rather than the domestic variety, is a strangely close-to-home sensation. Nevertheless, it’s a story that’s enjoyably told, with Nat (inherently less rebellious than Donna), working her way into the alien spin machine, while Donna herself joins the fairly lacklustre resistance and tries out-spin the spinners.
It’s enormous fun with a dark pulse of realism to it, and it features Tim Bentinck as alien warlord Ganthak and Phil Cornwell (last seen in Who selling the Tardis to Peter Capaldi on the streets of Pompeii) as spin-master Mr Parsnip, which guarantees good slickness and slime to be opposed by the Chiswick girls. Fun, fun, fun, and yet, a little stab in the heart every time Donna asks ‘Is everyone on this planet thick?’ Because the Valdacki are very, very close to being human. They’re very very close to being us. And yes. Yes, we really are this thick.
The Sorceror Of Albion, by James Goss is more or less a joyful, screamingly inaccurate historical story in the William Hartnell style, and it hangs more or less entirely on an incident in The Crusaders. For the sake of argument, imagine there’s a rangy old wizard stomping about the land of Albion, in need of help to defeat some shiny blazing warriors who keep trying to get at him and his granddaughter. And the only person who can help him is the redheaded Merlin who steps out of the magic box.
Yep. You read that right. Donna Noble, supertemp from Chiswick – is Merlin. And yes, Merlin finally gets to be piggin’ ginger!
Are ya happy now, Battlefield fans? Good – moving on.
As with many a Hartnell historical, there are great swathes of this story where the hero (Donna in this case) is locked up in a dungeon, her power emanating mostly from her reputation, her swagger and her stubborn refusal to help until she’s a) released, and b) asked nicely. Meanwhile Parval the wizard (David Schofield, no less) and his granddaughter Vivien (Lydia West) are both a stand-in for Hartnell and Carole Ann Ford, but also bring their Lear and Cordelia to bear on the ancient British environment, because while Donna’s trapped in a dungeon refusing to share her obviously humungous power, companion Natalie discovers that there’s more to both their relationship and the situation than meets at least the contemporary eye.
We genuinely don’t want to spoil the plot of this one for you, but it’s dramatic, a little heart-breaking, a little inspiring and above all, it’s a gorgeous listen as you try and work things out with Nat, and absolutely appreciate Donna’s joyfully stroppy con-compliance. Of all the stories in this set, it’s The Sorceror Of Albion that most channels its Classic Who, and while it’s a slightly odd thing to do in a box set slotting into a New Who chronology, it’s nevertheless right on the money in terms of satisfying Big Finish fans, New Who fans and Classic fans alike.
The set comes full circle with The Chiswick Cuckoos, by Matt Fitton.
If you’re a higher-level sci-fi fan, which is quite likely if you’re giving your money to Big Finish, the reference in the title will be obvious to you. We’re in doppelganger territory here, replacement people doing nefarious things, and that always-present fear that they’re actually doing them better and more effectively than you, genuine human being as you think you are, could ever do.
In Fitton’s script, there’s a rather fun double through-line, with the ‘Cuckoos’ provoking responses on the personal level for Donna, Sylvia, and Nat, while also…y’know…trying to take over the world. As you probably must if you’re an alien doppelganger. It’s probably written into the contract.
There are strong performances all down the line in this episode, which also sees the return of Isla Blair’s Marge character from episode one. Perhaps most joyfully, Catherine Tate, Jacqueline King and Niky Wardley all get strong things to do, and some solidly impressive words to say. There’s a revisiting of the relationship between Donna and Sylvia, and there’s also some unpicking and unpacking of the relationship between Donna and Nat which is especially relevant after the first three episodes – it feels like by the end of this episode, Donna is stronger, able to face her reactions and her past in a more objective way than she was at the start of the set, meaning Kidnapped! achieves that most dangerous things for a retrospective add-in to an existing chronology: it develops its central character. It allows Donna to grow between the horrendous shock of her life as she knew it being whisked away from her in Forest Of The Dead and the seemingly more relaxed Donna of Midnight, but it does it in a way which feels true to the character in both those stories. Oh, and it will, almost casually, break your tiny human heart right at the end, with a line that could have been written by Russell T Davies himself, and probably scored by an ominous Murray Gold plunge-note.
For fans of the character and of Catherine Tate’s performance, Donna Noble’s fate is one of the great tragedies of Doctor Who history – up there with Katarina’s death, probably up there higher than Adric’s. It’s such a seemingly final full-stop in her life that any more adventures for the supertemp always felt like they’d be relatively inconsequential add-ins to the existing timeline.
What Big Finish has done here is find a viable window in her life with the Doctor in which to give Donna not only a set of enjoyable, engaging, funny, moving adventures, but to give her some personal growth into the bargain.
If you’re a fan of Donna’s, you’re absolutely going to need this – but then, you didn’t need me to tell you that.
If you’re not a fan of Donna’s, you probably still need this, because it’s a window into her world that will make you think of the character in a whole new way, while showing the effect that the Doctor has on people who travel with him, how it broadens up their viewpoints and their lives and their confidence in ways they never knew they needed. It’s a set of adventures that shows how Donna has grown since she began travelling with the Doctor, yes, but also how good a human being she always had the potential to be, before, after, and even instead of him. Tony Fyler