Big Finish Review: Lady Christina
In many ways, Big Finish is currently going through something of a renaissance, full of commissions, exciting fresh ideas and loads of content from the New Series of Doctor Who. The latest in a fifty-odd string of New Series releases since 2015 is Lady Christina, a fun yet thrilling, camp yet morally rich boxset featuring the titular Lady Christina de Souza as originally depicted on television in 2009’s Planet of the Dead.
Lady Christina is written by John Dorney, James Goss, Tim Dawson and Donald McLeary, produced by David Richardson and directed by Helen Goldwyn. Buy it from the Big Finish website here, or wait until its general release on the 30th September 2018.
Here's the synopsis:
Jetsetter, adventurer, and owner of a very unusual London bus, Lady Christina de Souza likes the finest things. Even if they don’t belong to her. And the more exotic – or alien – the better.
But Christina’s activities have caught the attention of UNIT, and now Sam Bishop is on her trail...
It Takes a Thief by John Dorney
The French Riviera has always provided rich pickings for the aristocratic cat-burglar. Lady Christina is enjoying the high life while adding to her collection.
But when suspicion falls on her after a robbery-turned-murder, Christina decides to catch the culprit herself...
Skin Deep by James Goss
Sylvia Noble always knew she deserved better. So, when a chance encounter with aristocracy propels her out of Chiswick and into high society, she’s delighted.
But the beautiful people have their own agenda – and Christina is surprised when those plans involve her father.
Portrait of a Lady by Tim Dawson
When her plot to steal a priceless painting runs into trouble, Christina crashes into an undercover UNIT operation – and Sam Bishop.
Soon, her Number 200 bus is racing from Europe to South America and into the depths of the Pacific, chasing a mysterious and unstoppable foe…
Death on the Mile by Donald McLeary
Lady Christina has been offered a job: the heist of a lifetime. She simply has to break into Edinburgh Castle.
At the same time, UNIT are investigating alien activity at the Military Tattoo. And where there’s treasure and treachery, there are also Slitheen…
Lady Christina is a thief, and that gives her a slightly different relationship with listeners in that she exhibits qualities of an anti-hero, as the cast and crew mention. Yet there is a depth to her that goes beyond a single episode on television and justifies giving the character her own spinoff.
The opening title theme, also Lady Christina’s personal motif, is suitably funky, sure, dynamic and cool, befitting her work and attitude to life. Also, slightly truncated runtimes make for a somewhat more linear and straightforward episodic structure, although certainly not at the expense of story ideas or listener enjoyment.
It Takes a Thief
Straight up, we hear Lady C in action against the fantastically colourful and panoramic backdrop of the French Riviera, quickly dispatching foes with adept skill and a witty throwaway line. She is a capable and dynamic character and the episode obviously goes a long way in establishing how she works and how she relates to others.
Christina is accused of committing the murder of a member of the nobility and the theft of valuables – and so it falls to her to uncover the true killer. Christina finds herself paired up with the posh, Bertie Wooster-inspired Ivo Fraser-Cannon (Matt Barber) and facing up against the sophisticated Flavia Santos (Cristina Barreiro), ostensibly from Interpol. Although things initially seem straightforward, however, deeper layers begin to emerge.
Writer John Dorney’s dialogue is typically vibrant and witty, the city of Nice proving the ideal location to re-introduce the protagonist. The plot is fast-paced and the episode is of the type that warrants a repeat listen to catch all the clues and character moments. When everything comes to a head at the end, it’s fantastic, and a character cameo gives us a hint at where the rest of the boxset will head.
It Takes a Thief is all about morally grey characters and mischief, and is full of deception, with no one really being who they appear to be or introduce themselves as. Twists and reveals across the course of the episode leave things significantly different from where they left off, and we’re propelled into the next episode.
Skin Deep is obsessed with obsession, with looking beautiful and rejecting any possibility of physical ugliness. There are moments of body horror and physical transformation, making this the story with the most gruesome elements from the entire set. In this way, James Goss has penned a story that with a little tweaking would not be out of place in the Torchwood world. Indeed, a Goss-written episode from Torchwood – Aliens Among Us, Aliens & Sex & Chips & Gravy, came to mind not infrequently while listening to Skin Deep.
Sylvia Noble returns for the second time on audio, with this story giving actor Jacqueline King an opportunity to show a surprisingly more vulnerable and heartfelt side to Sylvia than we’ve seen before. Inside the hardened and opinionated facade, there is a genuine love and dedicated for her family, which really comes through in Goss’ script.
We also go to a deeper level with our lead, as Christina’s father, Lord Alfred, is introduced, who has a somewhat uneasy relationship with his daughter and contributed to themes of family legacy, reputation and personal embarrassment.
Despite the Torchwood connections, the episode fits nicely in the Series four/Specials phase of the RTD era, for along with Sylvia’s presence, the Adipose are name-dropped and Sylvia’s relationship with both her daughter Donna and father Wilfred is explored.
Portrait of a Lady
With a new, jazzed-up version of the main theme and the globetrotting nature of the plot, Portrait of a Lady would be a prime candidate for being filmed and shown on the big screen. From ray guns to a supervillain in her underwater lair, writer Tim Dawson packs a lot into an international and very visual story.
Christina, UNIT soldier Sam Bishop (crossing over from the New Series UNIT tales) and mischievous twins Lucy and Leon are on the hunt for a painting that can see into someone’s soul (cue Dorian Gray parallels). There is, however, a Sontaran on their tail (always great to have Christopher Ryan back), hunting them down on behalf of a bunch of classically vain and greedy villains.
We also see Christina’s 200 bus being put through its paces, including crashing into the sea. The absurdity of the image of a London double-decker bus flying through the air is probably more effective here, in this heightened offshoot part of the Doctor Who universe, than in the scientific and grittier Planet of the Dead.
“Hey spudhead. Nice gun.” had me burst out laughing and takes the cake for best line of dialogue from the series, and it’s Christina and Sam’s sparring that proves the highlight of this particular episode. Portrait of a Lady could also be the most frenetic and high-energy story, although that is difficult to tell considering the pace of all four!
Death on the Mile
The fourth and final story in the first series of Lady Christina sees the Slitheen return for the second time on audio, after The Taste of Death from The Tenth Doctor Chronicles. Continuing the global trend of the series, we head to the Edinburgh Tattoo in Scotland, where there are “traces of exotic energies” and, of course, a treasure chest to be found.
Reporter Jacqui McGee also returns from the UNIT series and joins up with Christina and Sam Bishop in their investigations to provide an enjoyable team dynamic. I would say it isn’t necessary to have listened to the UNIT series (or to have watched Michelle Ryan’s appearance on television) to respond to the characters. Notably, Death on the Mile gives the biggest insight into Jacqui – and her life and friendships – that we’ve seen so far.
As director Helen Goldwyn points out in the extras, Slitheen revelling in the hunt makes for a gloriously indulgent and boastful group of baddies who relish in simply being evil. This contributes to an active and bold episode which is equal parts comedy farce and moments of genuine threat. The sound design is again on point, and the ending is particularly absurd.
McLeary rounds off a series of adventurous action-fantasy tales full of cat burglars, flying buses, green rubber-skinned aliens and camp supervillains.
(Also, I might be wrong, but this could be the first instance of fidget spinners being mentioned in a Big Finish drama. Make of that what you will…)
A fifth disc of behind the scenes interviews (and in-studio laughter) accompanies the set, with a major highlight being hearing past Doctor Who showrunner Russell T Davies’, who obviously wrote Lady Christina's original episode, enthusiasm for and involvement in projects like this one being produced by Big Finish.
As Michelle Ryan explains, the character dynamic with the Doctor worked for the purposes of the episode, but she couldn’t have gone any further on television – which, as it turns out, is a huge boon for Big Finish fans willing to delve into something new with an open mind and ready to be happily surprised.
Also, with 18 actors playing 27 credited characters, plus more besides, the boxset is huge not only in storytelling scale but acting talent too!
Lady Christina fits neatly into the revived series of Doctor Who in terms of tone, pace and worldbuilding, but carves out its own niche of heightened, Bond-esque and often morally grey storytelling. Given Michelle Ryan’s enthusiasm for the character (evidenced not only by her praise for the whole Doctor Who universe, but also because this is the only role she has returned to over her years of acting), we anticipate seeing a lot more Lady Christina at Big Finish in the years to come.