Full disclosure – I’m a Paternoster Gang fan through and through. This release, and the news that there will be at least three more sets of adventures with the gang to come, was always going to be like Christmas to me.
If you’re not instinctively a Paternoster Gang fan, this first set has one real job – to convince you that the Paternoster Gang on audio has more scope to give you pleasure than they had on TV, playing second-fiddle to a wandering Time Lord.
Well, first of all of course, this spin-off series puts Madame Vastra the Silurian, Jenny Flint, her maid and wife (#ItsComplicated), and Strax, their Sontaran butler and grenade-fetishist, front and centre. That means there’s less clutter here than on-screen, because the gang are not fighting for breath around the margins of stories focused on a Doctor and a companion, both of whom by the nature of the show are designed to take the spotlight. Here, the spotlight has shifted to the Paternosters, and their world can expand to fill that light. So for non-fans, perhaps perversely, putting them front and centre can dilute some of the things about the gang that don’t ‘click’ in mainstream TV Who.
Secondly, Big Finish has form in delivering compelling, funny, tense, character-driven stories of odd goings-on in Victorian London – in Jago & Litefoot, the company turned two well-written subsidiary characters into thirteen hugely-loved box sets that would have undoubtedly gone on had Trevor Baxter not sadly died. So arguably, The Paternoster Gang would be worth a punt in any case because without a doubt, Big Finish knows its business, and it’s aiming both to satisfy existing fans and win new ones with these Paternoster Gang stories.
But let’s get to the specifics of this set.
The Cars That Ate London!, by Jonathan Morris is a story that’s part social allegory, part historical extrapolation, part bizarre sci-fi horror story, that allows the Paternoster Gang to ease into your consciousness as a unit in their own right. Morris gives us a semi-traditional pathway into the story – as Holmes and Watson had Inspector Lestrade to get baffled and involve them in cases, the Paternoster Gang have Inspector Cotton to fill that role and occasionally cast them into intrigue and adventure. The Cars That Ate London! draws attention to several issues that were pertinent in the Victorian era and are pertinent again now – electric cars and power stations being the two most central. Electric cars in Victorian London? Apparently so – never underestimate the openness of the Victorian mind. There were trials of electric cars that long ago, it was just that petrol-driven versions were more reliable, more economical and less altogether creepy than their electric counterparts. Here, electric cars are a viable option being pushed by a kind of Victorian Elon Musk (Alien Musk, maybe?), who has a vision of a world free from the pollution and oil-dependence to which the development of petrol cars will lead.
In a development that taps into more current fears about self-driving cars, when your ecological salvation starts driving into crowds and getting car-nivorous, things are clearly out of hand. When it emerges that the vision of a polluted future it is exactly that – a vision – we quickly shift gears from identifying an oddness to dealing with some timey-wimey alien influence here, and the Paternoster Gang are what you need if that’s what you’re facing. That’s a fundamental of this series – where Jago & Litefoot had a strong tendency towards the more human and supernatural sides of the Victorian nature, the Paternoster Gang are more or less all about the alien. In The Cars That Ate London!, the nature of the alien issue is on the small side, but the impact of just a tiny bit of dickering about with time and established causality clearly has the potential to spiral massively out of control, and so has to be stopped.
The story’s pertinent, vaguely prophetic and briskly told, while there’s plenty of time and scope for character moments. If you’re not keen on Strax as a ‘comedy Sontaran’ in Doctor Who, it’s time to embrace the comedy that comes from his ‘potato out of water’ situation and the fundamentals of his character. Here, for instance, Jenny’s been trying to teach the solo Sontaran to speak ‘cocker-knee’ so as to move with less stompy obviousness among the communities of the East End. Ultimately though, it’s Vastra who’s most cogently able to deal with the threat here, as it’s her, of the three, who’s able to be most ‘Doctorish’ when such a thing is needed. Nevertheless, there’s room for all three of the gang to have their moment in this introductory story, and it leaves you not only feeling like you’ve had a rollicking Victorian adventure with a relatively new bunch of audio friends, but pondering what we in the 21st century are actually going to do about the balance between our need for technology and our need to protect the planet for generations to come.
A Photograph To Remember, by Roy Gill, is the most poignant of the three stories in this set, taking us into the world of memorial photography – photos of dead people, posed as though they’re alive, to give a kind of ‘life-memory’ of their subject. At first, that feels a little macabre to 21st century mindsets, but to the Victorians, it made a particular kind of sense. You wouldn’t want to remember someone looking dead, would you? That would be simply ghoulish!
That conceit leads us into the meat of this episode, which involves a hefty chunk of Paternoster world-building. If Holmes had his Moriarty, then it turns out our Paternoster Gang have their own equal-and-opposite power stalking the streets of London – the Bloomsbury Bunch. One Silurian, one human, one Sontaran. Their dynamics are radically different, and so are their aims, but whether they can actually be defined as evil in this adventure is up for debate. They have plans, absolutely, but the plans they have spiral wildly out of control, leading from what is basically an inept filing system to a fairly full-on zombie apocalypse, with additional bodyswapping fun!
Unravelling the threads of their plans from the consequences that are their first visible results, through the zombie – or more accurately, revenant – apocalypse, to the again-tiny bit of alien gubbins responsible for the whole thing is a process that takes up most of the episode, giving it the feel of a rational investigation against a ticking clock. Adding in the Anti-Paternosters’ personalities, relationships and power structures is a glorious complication that ultimately pushes everything to a knife-edge. If part of the first box set’s job is to broaden the Paternosters’ world into something on which they can more comfortably (and, for those who weren’t fans of theirs on TV, less irritatingly) stamp their personalities, and where they can be the enjoyable focus of their own adventures, then the delivery in Roy Gill’s story of an equal-and-opposite group with a different dynamic is a key part of that broadened canvas.
Also, purely in terms of casting, bringing back Christopher Ryan as the Anti-Strax who’s in charge of the Bloomsbury Bunch is a stroke of right-feeling genius. It will be interesting, based on this first story, to see how their relationship to one another develops in future.
And finally, when is a ghost not a ghost?
Well, practically always, admittedly, but particularly when they’re drifting about the place looking all ethereal before they’ve technically shuffled off this mortal coil. In The Ghosts Of Greenwich by Paul Morris, there’s an enormous scope to the storytelling, taking us from disreputable drinking dens and human pals of Strax (the invention of a character called ‘Old Smallpiece,’ played by Trevor Cooper, who can serve as another story-conduit for the future is another stroke of genius here), to the Royal Observatory, a potential time-thief, and the glorious contradiction that is the line of meridian – a seemingly arbitrary line drawn on the ground that can determine what the time is for the rest of the world. It’s highly-structured drama, with a solidly spooky starting premise that builds to proper alien creepiness and power, for a standoff finale that proves the Paternoster Gang can handle the big angry alien threats as well as the smaller misused technology episodes.
Bottom line, if you liked the Paternoster Gang as sidekicks to the Doctor on TV, you’re going to love them here as their world is expanded and they’re allowed to live lives more centred in their own day-to-day adventures. If you didn’t, and even if you hated comedy Sontarans and lesbian lizards, you’re going to need to check this box set out – Big Finish, as we may have mentioned, knows its stuff. It’s worked hard to place the gang very firmly in their own world, and in that world, they’re shiny and funny and clever and kickass and tender and caring and funny some more. There are challenges to their set-up, there are Sapphire and Steely elements of creepiness and there’s even a degree of steampunk sensibility that makes this first box set feel like the start of something really rather special. Tony Fyler