Lady Christina: Series One – Starring Michelle Ryan ,Jacqueline King, Warren Brown, Matt Barber, Cristina Barreiro, Holly Jackson Walters, William Gaminara, Suzy Bloom, Rebecca Yeo, Gareth Corke , Emily Carewe, Matthew Brenher, Christopher Ryan, Jenny Lee, Tracy Wiles, Melissa Collier, Richard Hansell & Ewan Bailey. Written by John Dorney, James Goss, Tim Dawson & Donald McLeary. Directed by Helen Goldwyn – 5xCD / Download (Big Finish)
Of all the potential audio spin-offs from New Who, Lady Christina looks at first glance to be among the most obvious, the most right, the most likely to take off in a big way. Just as, for instance, the character-actor combination of Jago & Litefoot gave Big Finish a runaway success based on one-shot TV characters from Classic Who, you could pretty much describe Lady Christina de Souza, the aristocratic cat burglar from Planet of the Dead, played by Michelle Ryan, and think ‘Oh yeah, that’s gonna work.’
This (presumably first) set of four stories is notable for almost hitting the potential of Lady Christina, but surprisingly, not quite getting there – at least not compared to the likes of Jenny, which established itself as a source of delight to fans by its singular lack of emotional baggage and the way in which it took the character forward.
This Lady Christina set tries to do the same sort of thing, but ultimately feels like it’s a series with its training wheels still unexpectedly attached. Lady Christina’s double-decker bus may fly, but this series feels like it pedals awfully hard, but never quite gets the air under its wheels it needs.
Part of that may be down to the anthology, episodic style of the first four stories, with Lady Christina getting three ‘companions’ over the course of the four stories – that’s undoubtedly right for the nature of her character, but it gives the listener surprisingly little by way of consistent dynamic to latch onto.
That’s by no means to say there’s not lots of great stuff here, because there is – the first story, It Takes A Thief by John Dorney is exactly what it sounds like; a tale of fast cars, steady nerves, jewel thievery and chic people on the French Riviera, some of whom are less, and more, than they seem. Big Finish takes Lady Christina forward in the aftermath of her encounter with the Doctor, so that she’s now one of the people of whom both UNIT and Torchwood probably have lists – hunters with a particular interest in alien artefacts, either for their own use or for sale for truly scandalous sums of money. When an old woman turns up dead in a terribly chic Riviera hotel, Christina joins in the hunt both for the killer, and the thief who stole her jewels – which might well have a history beyond the stars. Of all the stories in the set, this is the one that seems most coherent in its set-up, with Christina having a faithful, and faithfully devious, servant to help her in her cons and her thievery, Carla played somewhere between Sancho Panza and Jeeves by Holly Jackson Walters, of whom it would hurt not at all to hear more in any future sets. The Riviera setting makes sense for Christina, allowing her to exercise both her derring-do, her brain and her arch wit, with help from Ivo Fraser-Cannon (Matt Barber), half Bertie Wooster, half…something else, but what? Hot on the trail of the thief and murderer too is Flavia Santos of Interpol, played by Cristina Barreiro. The story unfolds in a way that’s part chess game, part square dance, and while you’ll probably guess the inevitable resolution ahead of its reveal, you’ll still get a buzz of satisfaction from the slickness of the story and the familiar Christian energy which Ryan pours into the role.
Skin Deep by James Goss is a strong story that feels like it needed two episodes to really deliver on its potential, but is delivered in one, to the detriment of some elements. Firstly, it pairs Lady Christina with everyone’s favourite sourpuss, Sylvia Noble. This could be believable, especially given what we eventually learn about the underlying reasons behind their alliance, but here it feels too quickly and simply done, too ‘Hoorah, let’s be friends, moving on,’ because while Sylvia’s snobbish and desperate to matter, she’s not by any means stupid, and the speed of the story feels like she has to be, simply to get all its players in the right place quickly enough to deliver its creepy alien beats.
The creepy alien beats – a new spa treatment that seems to make people look much younger, but bring them out in suicidal self-hatred – feel like they’re crammed in here too, meaning a couple of the spa-goop’s strongest advocates, Christina’s friends, go full zombie fairly early on, leaving little to the curiosity. Although for those who were curious, which is all of you, we do get to meet Christina’s dad in this episode. Bit of a git, to be fair, just ripe for a classic Sylvia Noble tongue-lashing.
Portrait Of A Lady by Tim Dawson is where we start getting into proper storytelling trouble though, with a story of a painting that shows you the darkness of your soul, a somewhat enigmatic network of dodgy international dealers, a henchman with a tame Sontaran, and an ultra-villain with their own brain-chipped pet sharks. It’s Lady Christina as James Bond, and while that could be made to work, it feels cluttered with characters the point of which you lose track of quickly, the central MacGuffin is ultimately underwhelming, and Christina struggles to remain front and centre of the action when paired with audio-UNIT’s hardman du jour, Sam Bishop, played by Warren Brown. For regular listeners, it feels like an unhelpful blurring of the lines between UNIT and Lady Christina, and for those who haven’t heard the UNIT box sets, it feels like a slightly unhelpful rope-in of a hard man to be Christina’s equal (or at least, near-equal) so soon into her potential audio life. That means you might well struggle to recall, even relatively shortly after listening what the point of Portrait Of A Lady was, and why x, y or z happened.
Death on the Mile by Donald McLeary takes Christina to Edinburgh on a subsidised hunt for historical treasure. There follows a tale in which a wife is worried by her husband’s perpetual niceness, there are volcanoes aplenty, Christina’s flying double-decker comes into its own, appalling damage is done to Edinburgh castle, and the lines between Christina and UNIT are further blurred by more Sam Bishop and extra Jacqui McGee, nosy reporter from the UNIT series, played by Tracy Wiles. The structure of this story is more focused though, allowing Christina to take more of a central role and, when almost everyone turns out to be more than they seem, while it can be a challenge to remember who’s who and why things are happening the way they are, you can fix your attention on Christina in this story, leading you to a solidly researched and somewhat ‘jazz hands’ conclusion, Christina’s skills and motivations shining through among a roster of competing interests.
Overall, Lady Christina is a set that feels like it has some idea of where it’s trying to go, and how it’s trying to establish a world around the classy cat burglar. If it gets a second set, there’s little doubt, on the basis of this one, that it will iron out its kinks and that she’ll go on to earn several more return engagements. It’s worth hoping that happens because there’s real potential in Lady Christina. It just needs to establish exactly what the world looks like that underpins her stories. For our money, that would be more Carla, less UNIT, allowing Christina to be more distinctively the lead and the driver of the action all the way through. Tony Fyler