Patient Zero by Nicholas Briggs
TARDIS Team: The Sixth Doctor and Charley
Running Time: 121:54
Directed By: Nicholas Briggs
Released: August 2009
Please note that while I've tried to avoid including any big spoilers in this review, and have covered up the biggest one just in case, there are inevitably some revelations about the plot which you might wish to avoid.
So here we are then, at the start of a keenly anticipated trilogy of stories which will, apparently, finally resolve the Charley-Sixth Doctor arc that has been running for nearly two years. For those not up to date, the story so far: after being the Eighth Doctor’s main companion for what felt like forever, at the end of The Girl Who Never Was Charley found herself marooned in the far future with the Doctor believing her to be dead. The TARDIS duly arrived in response to her distress call, only for the Sixth rather than Eighth Doctor to step out of the door and ask if he could help. Having seen firsthand the dangers of cocking up the Web of Time Charley didn’t let on her past association with his future self, but such common sense was somewhat mitigated by the fact that instead of just asking the Doctor to drop her off at the Singapore Hilton as you might expect she chose instead to continue travelling in the TARDIS, thus proving herself to be that most deadly of creatures, The Girl Who Never Lets Go. Inevitably, and despite her best efforts, she has dropped a fair number of clangers since then hinting to the Doctor that all is not as it seems to be, and wise old fruit that he is he has grown increasingly suspicious of his curious new friend. Now things are coming to a head, with September’s second release Blue Forgotten Planet being trailed as the pair's final story together in which all is revealed. Originally this was scheduled to happen over a year ago, but the amount of positive feedback this TARDIS team received persuaded Executive Producer Nick Briggs and Script Editor Alan Barnes to extend the arc for a greater number of stories. It’s worked to their favour too: as I’ve said in the Best and Worst articles, I wasn’t especially enamoured with the whole idea (not only did it make for an unsatisfactory end to the Eighth Doctor’s relationship with Charley but there’s also something faintly creepy about her actions, not to say irresponsible) but have to confess to feeling more than a frisson of excitement on pressing play on the first episode of Patient Zero to see what was going to happen.
So let’s get down to the nitty-gritty: does the Sixth Doctor finally discover Charley’s secret?
These developments are the highpoint in an audio which is frustratingly uneven, having lots of good stuff but also some significant problems. I don't think it’s not spoiling anything to say that the story finds the Doctor and Charley coming up against not only the Viyrans, the mysterious race who featured in the "Virus Strand" one-parters from a couple of years ago, but also once again the Daleks, making their second appearance in the main range in four audios. This seems at first a bit much, but at least this time there is a good reason for their inclusion (unlike May’s Enemy of the Daleks which was a bit of a dud), although to say exactly what that reason is would be to reveal too much about the overriding story. It’s not a particularly glorious occasion for Skaro's finest, as they spend most of the story being constantly frustrated in their quest to track down the eponymous Patient Zero, whom they believe is hiding somewhere in the Amethyst Viral Containment Station, the large complex on the edge of the universe which is the setting for the story. Their leader is the "Dalek Time Controller," a new addition to their ranks, whom Briggs the actor imbues with far more personality than is usual for the pepperpots; this Dalek is a ratty, almost fey creature who displays considerably more deviousness than the rather unremarkable grunts he has under his command and as such is rather more interesting than the usual array of characterless drones who face the Doctor. At times he sounds positively exasperated at the inability of the rest of his squad to make progress, his eyes no doubt on the clock as they race to find Patient Zero before the arrival of the Viyrans. Their progress is hindered not only by the presence of the Doctor, who has arrived at the station in hopes of finding a cure for a virus which has infected Charley, but also the Fratalins (all played by Michael Maloney), a single being split into 800 individuals who can blend in with each other at any time - a bit like the Borg crossed with Odo from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine - who is/are determined to keep the station in lockdown until the arrival of his/their masters the Viyrans. But who is Patient Zero? Why do the Daleks want to find him/her/it? And just why are the Viyrans coming to the station, and do they pose a danger far greater than anything these particularly inept Daleks can do?
On first listening to the play I confess I didn’t think much of it. The main problem is that there is a great deal of padding and it's very easy to imagine that the story could very easily have been half the length without losing anything of significance. After an enjoyable first episode, the next two seem to consist of little more than variations on the following theme:
Dalek: Lower the forcefield, Doctor!
Dalek: If you do not we will exterminate Charley.
Fratalin: Don't do it, Doctor!
Doctor: But if I don't, Charley will die!
before something happens to distract everyone for another few minutes. By far the more interesting strand is that following Charley, who unbeknownst to the Doctor is facing quite her own set of problems in the Station – whenever the action is concentrating on the Doctor and his tedious arguments with his enemies, one is champing at the bit to get back to hearing what’s going on with her. It doesn’t help matters that like the Daleks the Doctor is having a distinctly off-day: he shows little command of the situation (even at one point cravenly giving into the Daleks’ demands), spends his time shouting histrionically rather than doing anything particularly proactive, while the less said about one huge mistake he makes near the end the better. Add to that the fact that he has the wool pulled over his eyes almost completely by one of the other characters, as well as an oddly unlikeable scene in which he goes back for almost a gloat over a predicament in which his enemies find themselves and it’s hard to see this as one of the Sixth Doctor’s greatest triumphs.
But then, unsatisfied despite a conclusion which raises all sorts of exciting questions about the next two stories, I went back and relistened to Mission of the Viyrans, the Peter Davison one-parter which up to now had been the most prominent story featuring the titular creatures. Suddenly things made a lot more sense, and it became clear how much planning had gone into the Virus Strand, far more than it appeared back when it was running. It’s little surprise that BF are offering Mission as a 99p extra on the same page they are selling Patient Zero; either on their own aren’t particularly remarkable but take them together and a far richer, more satisfying picture emerges. That said, there’s still the suspicion that what the Viyrans are doing is far more interesting than the race themselves; with their multifarious abilities (including being able to assimilate and replicate any aural language within seconds, repel a group of Daleks and apparent technological superiority) they are little more than a generic super race at present, with little to latch onto for the listener.
And as mentioned earlier, while the Doctor/Dalek strand is ultimately somewhat tedious, the Charley one is anything but. Having no wish to spoil things I can't really expand on why that is, other than to say she is involved in a series of extremely powerful scenes, well played by all involved, throughout the audio resulting in a two-pronged cliff-hanger which makes the arrival of Blue Forgotten Planet even more eagerly anticipated. Frustratingly, quite the best thing in the play is also one which I don't really want to talk about now for fear of giving the game away but which you'll know when you hear - suffice to say it introduces one of the most intriguing elements to come along in a Big Finish play for quite some time. The whole strand sets things nicely up for Charley's final story (at the risk of falling flat on my face, it would seem that the middle play of this trilogy, Paper Cuts, possibly won't carry things forward too much), but the very fact it does that so well actually reflects what is both Patient Zero's main strength and biggest weakness. Ultimately, one comes away with the feeling that this is simply a lengthy scene-setter, filling in both back story (as well as reminding people who the Viyrans are) and putting the various pieces in their right place for the start of the final game. Very much a case of the sum being less than its parts, Patient Zero has many fine ingredients but can't quite bind them together in a narrative that justifies the story's running time, leading to a most paradoxical thing: a story which will have you both on the edge of your seat and looking at your watch.
As ever, the story comes with Extras on both discs. The first features interviews with cast and crew, which aren't especially revelatory - there's plenty of praise for guest star Maloney and the script, but little about the actual story - not surprising as until we know where it's going it's probably quite hard to discuss. Disc Two has episode five of The Three Companions, Marc Platt's twelve part Companion Chronicle which is being run at the end of the main range stories over the year and which this time features the Brigadier.
Patient Zero is released later this month and is available to order either on CD or as a download from Big Finish's website. Our thanks to Big Finish for their help with this review.