Big Finish Review: Doctor Who - Warlock's Cross
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November sees the final instalment of the 'new UNIT trilogy' at Big Finish, concluding the story of Daniel Hopkins (Blake Harrison) as he encounters Sylvester McCoy's Seventh Doctor. Warlock's Cross picks up after Peter Davison's The Helliax Rift (you can check out our review here) and Colin Baker's Hour of the Cybermen (review here).
Warlock's Cross has been written by Steve Lyons and directed by Jamie Anderson. It is available to purchase at the Big Finish site here and goes on general release on the 31st December. Here's the synopsis...
It’s time the truth was told. About UNIT. About the Cybermen invasion. About the so-called ‘Doctor’. About what happened all those years ago, at Warlock’s Cross. About the man they keep locked up in a cage, in a secret prison…
It’s time. Because UNIT scientific adviser Elizabeth Klein is going to help ensure the truth is brought to light.
Today’s the day… that UNIT falls.
I'll be joined by fellow reviewer and huge Doctor Who fan, my son Ben, to discuss this latest release. A warning of potential spoilers as we discuss The Helliax Rift, Hour of the Cybermen and Warlock's Cross...
Baz Greenland (aged 37)
UNIT stories can be difficult to get right. The Earth-bound setting largely involves two types of threat - the mad scientist / human catastrophe to be avoided or alien menace invading the planet. When it is done right, it can be superb; from Jon Pertwee's Third Doctor classics like The Silurians and Inferno to Big Finish's current UNIT range starring the modern incarnation led by Kate Stewart. But they can also be a struggle on screen and in audio; Doctor Who is for the most part fantastical, though it allows plenty of room for great human drama and sometimes, just sometimes, the UNIT setting can fall a little flat in both regards.
Which brings us to Big Finish's attempt to create a new set of UNIT characters across three stories, each featuring a different incarnation of the Doctor. The end result is a somewhat mixed affair. While the trilogy should be commended for creating characters that have deep flaws, there is no one that has the warmth and likeability of Benton or Osgood and certainly no Brigadier Lethbridge Stewart (though it's hard to imagine anyone could come close). The trouble is, while flawed, unlikable heroes make for great drama, it can be difficult to engage with them too. Without the three different Doctors, it's been hard to connect with anyone.
Blake Harrison's Daniel Hopkins may have been the exception at first; I certainly didn't warm to the new team in The Helliax Rift but he had potential as a companion-type character. And then we had the masterstroke that was Hour of the Cybermen, one of the best Doctor Who stories from Big Finish this year, turning Daniel into a villain consumed by grief for his family. But still, the rest of the UNIT team didn't really shine (perhaps Lee Price before his death). After the twists and turns of the last story, I was expecting a thrilling conclusion to the sorry tale of Daniel Hopkins.
Warlock's Cross has a great set up. A mysterious facility experimenting on alien technology, the traitorous Daniel awakening from a coma and UNIT in decline - Lyons' script throws a lot into the mix. There's a heady dose of self-referential nudges to the live show; setting this story in the 90s, the glorious hey days if Lethbridge Stewart's reign have passed and Earth is relatively quiet from alien interference, with the Doctor's adventures no longer part of the airwaves.
The organisation has been replaced with beaurocrats like Richard Gibson's Colonel McKenna. These aren't the heroes we loved like Benton and Yates. It's a great setting to explore the decline of UNIT - Daniel's betrayal being a symbol of that - but it does make for a rather solemn affair. Tracey Child's reprises her Big Finish role as UNIT's new scientific advisor, becoming the quasi companion for McCoy's Doctor bit even she still has a dark side. She's not the Nazi-like figure of Colditz, but she'll steal from the Doctor for her own ends.
As a listener I was torn between the appreciation for the drama this conflict provided and the lack of likeability of those involved. Perhaps this story might have been stronger had we had someone like Ace or Hex travelling with the Doctor. Tom Milligan's anti-UNIT protestor Greg offered a more human side to the proceedings, but his actions again made it hard to like him at times.
However, where Warlock's Cross strength lies is in the central mystery of the facility and the alien ship that crash landed into the facility years earlier. Ship is a marvellous creation, controlling those within its grasp and fuelling the paranoia of all involved. It also sees McCoy's Doctor do a bit of the 'Time Lord Victorious' as Ship warps his mind, amplifying the arrogance that he can change history no matter what the cost. The fourth and final part is a thrilling sequence of twists and turns, with Klein and the Doctor forging an uneasy alliance to defeat Hopkins. He remains a tragic figure to the end, sympathetic in his grief for his family but consumed by his hatred for everyone and everything.
There are certainly moments to enjoy in Warlock's Cross; it is tonally much closer to The Helliax Rift and much of your enjoyment will depend on how you felt about that story. I applaud the ability to show the darker side of UNIT; it's not the end of the organisation the synopsis teases, but offers a nice commentary on what happens when all the heroes have left and Earth doesn't quite face the level of threats it once did. However, as an experiment in creating a new UNIT team for Big Finish, it has been less successful.
Ben Greenland (aged 12)
So, to end off the UNIT trilogy this year, we have the second strongest of the three instalments. Hour of the Cybermen is still the best, though that's down to Colin Baker's superb performance.
The story in general is... mediocre. It has the return of Klein, who was first introduced in Colditz and then returned in another trilogy and the UNIT: Dominion box set. She doesn't have as much to do as I would've liked. The return of the UNIT operatives and traitor Daniel Hopkins comes to an end in a story that isn't a whole lot of fun to listen to. Fortunately when the big twist comes and it's revealed Ship is trying to control the Doctor, the story picks up. But only a little. Daniel Hopkins was definitely the strongest of them, and his pairing with the Seventh Doctor is a very good send-off for the character.
A short two and a half minute music sequence sits between parts two and three. While quicker than the usual 'music suites' it is an effective piece, full of racing strings to create tension that was distinctly reminiscent of Clive Mansell's Lux Aeterna from Requiem For A Dream.
There is also a trailer for upcoming Seventh Doctor tale Muse of Fire, featuring Sophie Aldred's Ace, Philip Oliver's Hex and the return of the delightful Big Finish character Iris Wildthyme, played by Jo Grant herself, Katy Manning.
Finally there is a great set of interviews with the cast and crew; Tracey Child's talks with great fondness about playing Klein, there's more insight into the development of the new UNIT team and Sylvester McCoy delights the audience with tales of how he got into acting.