All of what you’re about to read should be understood through a very clear and singular prism: I love the Paternoster Gang. Always have, always will, and on audio at Big Finish, both the characters and their adventures have a chance to grow by virtue of the characters being, like most of us, the focal point in the stories of their own lives.
So: Tony loves Paternosters. Clear?
Now, read on.
Heritage 1 did everything it needed to do with the Paternoster Gang’s first solo outing on audio – it established them front and centre of their own narrative, gave them a focus, in terms of alien doohickery and gittery in Victorian London (as opposed to the frequently macabre and unexplained shenanigans of Messrs Jago and Litefoot). Heritage 2 massively expands their reach, both in terms of geography and in terms of the challenges they’re called upon to tackle. The world of Paternoster Row is getting bigger and more complex.
Dining With Death, by Dan ‘Dan, Dan the Sontaran, if he can’t blast it, no-one can’ Starkey, sees the Gang tackle the impromptu hosting of an interplanetary peace conference between a species habituated to lying and killing even their own kind, more or less out of occasional existential boredom, and a race who’d make you measure the circumference of the dots on your ‘i’s to ensure they conformed to protocol before they signed anything. The previous peace conference between the two races in a discrete London restaurant was atomised by person or persons unknown, there are factions on both sides that don’t want the peace to go ahead, the races are only coming together to fight a third invasive species who neither of them have actually set eyes on, and Madame Vastra is determined that the tensions surrounding the conference will not spread out onto the streets of London, and into the wider world. It is her duty, she feels, to protect the Earth from the cosmic idiocy and bloodshed of any failure to communicate between these races, and so she offers the house on Paternoster Row as the location for the negotiations, with herself as chair and Strax as butler, taking care of all the delegates’ many pernickety needs, while Jenny is despatched to find out who blew the first peace conference to its component atoms – and whether they might try again.
While it’s absolutely the case that all three of the Gang have their own storylines here, and that all three get plenty of chances to shine, Starkey’s closeness to the way Strax speaks and thinks makes this an extra-special treat for Strax-fans, from Strax’s decidedly…erm…RentoKillWithMaximumPrejudice approach to plumbing, to an insistence on the surrender of even ceremonial stabby things while the conference is in session, to fixing atmospheric conditions for the different aliens and, when necessary, wrestling the cheese into submission. Because, y’know…Strax gives a whole new meaning to the phrase ‘lactose intolerant.’
Of the three stories in the set, Dining With Death is probably the most overtly comic, and as such, it reminds you of some of the things unique to the Paternoster Gang and gets you into their particular three-way chemistry, before things take a darker, screamier tone with the two remaining stories. Maybe it’s a mark of personal shallowness, but the outright comedy means it’s my strong nomination for easiest and most regular re-listen on this set.
Guy Adams takes the writing reins for the second story, The Screaming Ceiling, which pairs the Gang with young, gadget-addicted ghost-enthusiast, Thomas Carnacki to investigate…well, a screaming…erm…ceiling, really. The joy about this story is that it’s told as if related by Carnacki himself (for those not in the know, Carnacki the Ghost-Finder was a fictional paranormal investigator created by William Hope Hodgson in the early 20th century). The two investigating teams are employed independently by the husband and wife owners of Castle Kraighten in the Highlands of Scotland – cue mists, rain, horrible weather and the desperate isolation of an old, old castle for atmosphere. Castle Kraighten has…well, there really is no other way to say this, it has a ceiling with a mouth, and a mouth that screams. But other things are weird in the castle too – people have a history of wandering off down its corridors and never being seen again.
Bring it on, Stephen King!
The chemistry between various members of the Paternoster Gang and the young, self-important Ghost-Finder propels this story along to good effect, certainly, but there’s a real sense of creepy gothic ghost stories about the tone of the piece, especially when it becomes clear that Carnacki himself may not be quite the reliable narrator he thinks he is. Will they all get out alive? Especially after the ceiling eats Strax? While Madame Vastra, Jenny and the aggrieved Sontaran have all the nous and the aptitude to work out the mystery of Castle Kraighten, it’s just possible that the lives of our heroes – and after them, the world – might depend on the self-aggrandizing chatterbox before the affair of The Screaming Ceiling is drawn to a close, because of the crucial difference between knowing what is happening and being able to stop it. Joe Jameson as Carnacki is a particular delight in this story, giving him quite the peacock touch while retaining an essentially good heart, so that, while we sympathise with Strax’s position, we can’t ultimately agree with him when he pleads that he should be allowed to kill the arrogant young rodent who attaches himself to the Madam Vastra…
…At least, not this time…
And as if meeting Carnacki the Ghost-Finder wasn’t a big enough humblebrag, the final story in the set has the Gang engage the infamous Spring-Heeled Jack of old London town.
The story, by Gemma Arrowsmith, starts with a giant premise – Spring-Heeled Jack is an actual London legend, being able to leap tall buildings at a single bound, with burning eyes and fiery breath – and as it develops, becomes something rather more emotionally complex. When the sweetheart of one of Jack’s victims turns to the Gang for help, Madam Vastra takes some convincing to debase herself by investigating folklore tales. But when the sweetheart starts forgetting her beloved, his name, his face and the details of his life, it’s clear something sinister’s going on. It might not be legendary jumping demons, but neither is it exactly another ordinary day at Paternoster Row. Before you can blink twice, Strax is jumping into the Thames to follow an aquatic lead, while Madam Vastra takes to the rooftops to follow a trail, leaving Jenny to investigate drier sources of information alongside Gwendoline Platt, an over-hungry journalist with an exploitative turn of mind. When they eventually find the infamous Spring-Heeled Jack, it would be spoilerific to tell you the ways in which things get more complicated than anyone imagines, but suffice it to say there’s unlikely to be a dry eye in the house by the time you’re done.
Heritage 2 eases you in with a gag-packed tale of intrigue and diplomacy, takes you into gothic ghost stories and very nearly traps you there forever, and hits you with an emotionally rich line on a longstanding London mystery, to make you hug your loved ones tighter and more often, while imagining the indignities of losing the memories you swear you’ll never lose and would never willingly surrender. It’ll make you laugh, and thrill, and cry, all within the setting of a super-intelligent lizard-woman, her wife-cum-maid, and their butler-of-war in the Victorian world. It’s heart-warming, gorgeous, emotional, fun, and you’d be ill-advised human scum to miss it. Tony Fyler