Big Finish Review: Doctor Who - The Comic Strip Adaptations Volume 1
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The third month of the year brings the third Fourth Doctor boxset in a row, with The Comic Strip Adaptations hot on the heels of The Syndicate Masterplan. Read Baz Greenland’s take on Part 1 and Part 2 of Series 8 of the Fourth Doctor Adventures before proceeding with this review!
The Comic Strip Adaptations features Tom Baker as the Doctor, from the comic strips written by Pat Mills and John Wagner. Alan Barnes has adapted the stories for Big Finish, directed by Nicholas Briggs and produced by Jamie Anderson. The boxset is available on the Big Finish website prior to general release.
Read the story synopses below:
Doctor Who and the Iron Legion by Alan Barnes
1979 AD! Led by the terrible General Ironicus, the mighty Iron Legion – robot veterans of the Eternal War – have come, seen and conquered the English village of Stockbridge!
Caught up in the mayhem, the Doctor pursues the Legion back through the great Dimension Duct to their place of origin – an alternative Earth where Rome never fell…
But can he survive the horrors of the gladiatorial Hyp-Arena long enough to uncover the terrifying secret at the heart of the Galactic Roman Empire?
Doctor Who and the Star Beast by Alan Barnes
1980 AD! In Yorkshire, the authorities have dismissed reports that an Unidentified Flying Object was seen plummeting towards the ground… moments before the explosion that destroyed the Blackcastle Steel Mills. After all, Blackcastle is the last place on Earth aliens would ever want to visit…
Local teenagers Sharon and Fudge know better. ’Cos they’ve found an actual space alien hiding in the allotments. He’s their alien. Their secret. And his name is… The Meep.
He’s not the only alien in Blackcastle, though. His pursuers, the terrible Wrarth Warriors, are on his trail, along with their unwitting accomplice: The Doctor!
The Comic Strip Adaptations are a much-anticipated addition to the Fourth Doctor canon on audio. Both stories feature strong visual imagery, multiple locations and a lot of action. The pace is fast, the dialogue snappy and the characterisation distinct, which work in the stories’ favour as it ensures the audience’s attention is maintained throughout.
Doctor Who and the Iron Legion
A Roman invasion of England was never so high-tech or full of robots as it is in The Iron Legion. The four-part drama splits the action into as many parts, taking the Doctor and his group of companions to a quartet of different settings. The episodic nature of the story prevents the pace from dragging and keeps the characters moving from location to location.
The first episode sees the quaint and pleasant village of Stockbridge collide with a spaceship-faring Roman Legion, and this peculiar fusion of high-tech and mundane makes for some great imagery and humour, particularly among the dumbstruck village residents. By the end of part one the drama has moved to a Roman gladiatorial arena, which is a stark but enjoyable contrast to the normalcy of Stockbridge, and includes a humorous parody of sports commentators highlighting the absurdity of the arena action. From there, the story delves into Roman mythology and iconography, another significant shift away from gladiator battles and politics.
From the outset Tom Baker’s Fourth Doctor is as fun-loving and irreverent as ever, joining the story as much for fun and adventure as for foiling the antagonist’s plan. Although The Iron Legion doesn’t do anything exceedingly innovative with the character, he is nonetheless presented a reliable, endearing figure to trust and go along with.
Stockbridge residents and squabbling married couple Viv and Doug tag along as prisoners-of-war taken to the Roman home world for enforced labour. Finding themselves as slaves on the imperial air galley, they are given a more significant role in the audio version than the original comic strip, according to the behind-the-scenes interviews, and add a welcome humanity to the high-concept tale as they stick together to cope in the face of interstellar travel and robot Romans.
The steel-jawed and artificial-eyed Morris serves as the emotional heart of the story, Joseph Kloska injecting much pathos into the performance despite his physical aberrations. His involvement in the drama is poignant, yet almost fated not to end well. Luke Franks does a good job at playing the young, impulsive and ill-mannered Emperor Adolphus whose mother is manipulating him for her own ends. He may be immature, but his status as Emperor means his whims and fancy must be taken as law, contributing to the welcome absurdity of the whole situation.
Musically, the story excels, with Alistair Lock’s score proving highly memorable. It evokes rural England as well as it does a gladiatorial arena or the relentless, marching Roman legion. Sound effects too are plentiful and vibrant.
Doctor Who and the Iron Legion is exciting, colourful and action-packed like the best comics, and with the added Big Finish voice talent of the likes of Tom Baker, this tale of robot Romans achieves an energy that makes for a fun and exciting listen.
Doctor Who and the Star Beast
The second story in the set is completely Earthbound yet does not go without wacky sci-fi action and aliens. The plot flows easily and without complication. After a UFO is seen over the skies of Blackcastle, Yorkshire, the no-nonsense teenager Sharon and her friend Fudge encounter Beep the Meep, an ostensibly harmless furry creature with the appearance of “a hamster [that] swallowed a beach ball”. A galactic police force is on its tail, attempting to track down the creature, while Sharon and Fudge attempt to help the adorable Beep the Meep evade capture.
The Star Beast is a fun and light-hearted story that makes good use of its domestic setting. There is threat and danger, and a plot to destroy the Earth, but the tone never drifts far from light-hearted and colourful adventure, as befitting of the comic source material. Big, dumb and goofy aliens arguing among themselves undercut the tension with humour despite the stakes, which only adds to the intended tone of the story.
Sharon is a resourceful sixteen-year-old, and Rhianne Starbuck plays her with great genuineness in a way that sells her character’s young age. Although promoted as the Doctor’s “new companion” for this set of Comic Strip Adaptations, this is not completely true for this story, as she only officially is accepted into the TARDIS at the end of the tale – but this does leave open opportunities for further audio adventures.
Ben Hunter’s Fudge is instinctive and rambunctious and plays off Sharon well. He is also full of references to famous sci-fi tales, from Star Trek to Star Wars, on top of all the terminology – he is a little nerdy, and not popular – but his knowledge ultimately proves useful and Fudge never loses confidence. They are two real and distinct characters who serve as the essential human core of the story, grounding the drama in the light of the farcical, spaceship-filled adventure. They are very much the point-of-view characters, and Sharon the protagonist, perhaps more so than the Doctor, who, although is still knowledgeable and forefront in solving the problem, does not drive the action as he sometimes does.
Finally, Beep the Meep is a truly maniacal character, initially sweet and cute before transforming into a rage-fuelled monster. The revelation of its true nature (hints to which are given during the drama before said reveal) brings the whole thing to another level of craziness and colour. Overall, Alan Barnes combines the human and the fantastical to create a truly bonkers quartet of episodes.
An hour of behind-the-scenes interviews, as usual, ends the set. In addition to cast and crew interviews illustrating the joys of working with Tom Baker, we hear a lot from writer-adapter Alan Barnes. He cannot hold back from expressing his delight at being able to adapt two of his all-time favourite Doctor Who comic strips, and his enthusiasm about adapting and reverence for the original stories come through in spades. Hearing details of the writing process itself is also fascinating.
The Star Beast interviews highlight Rhianne Starbuck’s enjoyment of the recording process and her newfound status as a companion of the Fourth Doctor. Director Nicholas Briggs also takes listeners through the cast list and outlines the high quality of acting from all involved, including news broadcasting legend Angela Rippon.
The set is rounded off with the Beep the Meep Song solo track – a kind of twisted children’s song – which truly must be heard to be believed.
The Iron Legion and The Star Beast are two stories that deserve a re-listen to truly appreciate the vastness of the action and set pieces, at least to wrap one’s head around what is happening. There is a lot of fun, humour and colour, with ludicrous alien species and silly voices galore. All in all, this set of Comic Strip Adaptations sets the stage for plentiful further adventures based on any of the many – and popular – Doctor Who comic strips, and will doubtless leave many clamouring for a second installment.