Doctor Who: The Code of Flesh

Written by: Andrew Lane

Read by: Dan Starkey

Andrew Lane, like other writers including Paul Magrs, has had the opportunity, story by story, to create a little pocket universe of his own. While Magrs was able to create several boxsets of adventures with the Fourth Doctor settling down into a cottage in a quiet village, accompanied on very much off-screen adventures by his landlady, Mrs Wibbsey, Lane now has two stories under his belt in which Victorian journalist James MacFarlane helps out the Eighth Doctor in investigations of the downright gothic and ghoulish kind.

In the first of those stories, The Scent of Blood, MacFarlane meets the Doctor in Victorian Edinburgh to battle vampires with a pleasing on-screen Doctor Who history. And in The Code of Flesh, Lane does the double on creepy Victorian gothic horror tropes, serving up a story that starts with a tour of Cardiff and a trip to a new anaesthesia party, where people get anaesthetised for pleasure, but also to reassure them of the safety of what is at the time a relatively new science within the field of medicine.

The Frankenstein Factor

When MacFarlane runs into the Eighth Doctor again (this time masquerading as a genuine medico), it’s the cue for a gruesome investigation into missing body parts – some of them remarkably vital to the business of continued living – and we wander into Frankenstein territory, with an inventive twist.

It’s a story that has an extra piquancy for long-term Eighth Doctor fans in the audio dimension, because the Eighth Doctor at Big Finish actually travelled for a short while with none other than Mary Shelley, taking her on a series of adventures that, we’re led to believe, helped spark her imagination to write the great gothic romance of fathers, sons, creation, life, death and dubious morality. It’s a combination-universe reality that gets an acknowledgement in The Code of Flesh, which is enough to make longstanding Eighth Doctor fans smile and nod in approval.

The story of The Code of Flesh itself takes some fairly rapid leaps, and the journey from where we start to where we finish is bold and involving, but if you try to listen to it while you’re doing other things, you might find yourself rewinding in the middle to try and recapture some of the progress you’ve missed. Taking us from gags about local Welsh cuisine to private anaesthesia parties, to seemingly impossible amputations and body-theft, to an ultimate deception and a strangely moral twist on everything you think you’ve learned, it’s a story that feels very much like prime Eighth Doctor adventuring, for all that he sometimes takes a back seat in this story to MacFarlane’s own investigations.

The Starkey Elevation

Employing Dan Starkey – famous to viewers of Doctor Who on TV as a handful of Sontarans, most notably Strax of Paternoster Row, and to Big Finish listeners for a whole lot of other characters over the years – is always a safe bet. He has a particular gift for audiobook reading, delivering vocal variety and, where necessary, performances of well-known characters, especially Doctors. He lit up the recent release of the audiobook of The Nightmare of Eden with his Fourth Doctor, for instance, and has been known to trot out a highly serviceable Twelfth Doctor too. Here, his Eighth Doctor is understated, a Paul McGann incarnation tempered with time, and more akin to his later Big Finish version than the on-screen Tigger version from the 1996 movie.  

Nevertheless, Starkey’s Eighth Doctor is solidly believable, and if he’s less energetic than the Eighth Doctor has sometimes been, that’s because it suits the mood of the piece that he should be so – it would be incongruous as all-get-out for the Doctor to be bouncy in a situation that involves gruesome thefts, walking monsters, and the dark inversion of a famous tale that reveals the sometimes-horror of obsessive humanity.

Beyond the Doctor, Starkey breathes both life and mystery into his reading of The Code of Flesh, as ever more than earning his paycheque and conjuring the world of the story into believably shudderworthy being.

Chilly Listening

If you’re looking for a Doctor Who story to suit the mood of cold and shivering January night, the combination of Andrew Lane’s writing, which takes you step by step like Hansel and Gretel from innocuous safety into increasingly darker territory, the gruesome subject matter (the theft of various body parts and even vital organs in distinctly Victorian, squeam-inducing circumstances), and Dan Starkey’s immersive interpretation of the text into an audio adventure that clings around your head and shoulders like a clammy touch in the dark, is more than enough to satisfy your gothic horror needs.

And yet for all that, the ending has a note of significantly greater hope than, say, the original Frankenstein, which deals with a tormented race into ever colder territory to keep the world safe from both the “monster” and its “father.” The Code of Flesh offers the possibility that even the most irrationally twisted human beings can bring some good out of their lives – whether they intend to or not. Like Genesis of the Daleks, Lane’s Code of Flesh sees the potential for goodness in even the darkest and most blighted creative endeavours, which is a sweet uptick of mood at the end of what is a sticky, tangled journey into the moral maze of human creation.

The Code of Flesh is more than worth your time, your money, and the dedication of your ears for its hour and change of run-time. It will pull you in, put you through a very gothic form of Hell – and reward you at the end for the journey you’ve taken.

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