Big Finish Review: Doctor Who - Tartarus
The first Big Finish Original release, Cicero, proved a big hit for the company in 2018, and it was only a matter of time before the character appeared again. This month’s Doctor Who monthly range story brings Samuel Barnett’s Cicero into the world of the Fifth Doctor, alongside Nyssa, Tegan, and a new companion, Marc.
Written by David Llewellyn and directed by Scott Handcock, Doctor Who – Tartarus is available from the Big Finish website on general release until 31 October 2019. Read the synopsis below:
63BC. Following the overthrow of Catiline, Cicero and his wife retire to the coastal town of Cumae, safe from the threats of Rome.
But when a stranger and his companions arrive at Cicero’s villa, new dangers lie in wait and Cicero finds himself plunged into a realm of gods and monsters.
His only hope of returning home lies with a man known as the Doctor. But can Cicero trust him?
Structuring this story in two parts rather than four is a refreshing shake-up to the standard format. Advocating for the change to occur across the monthly adventures might prove too audacious, but the alternative structure arguably lets the story flow as it needs to without the obligation of creating three separate cliffhangers.
Writer David Llewellyn, having done his (extensive) homework on Ancient Rome in preparation for the Cicero series, impressively weaves a wealth of information about the social and cultural milieu into the script. He delves into topics like slavery, class and gender; explores meaningful motifs of mythology and history; and sprinkles relevant – and never less than interesting – exposition across the two hours.
Cleverly, Llewellyn spends the first half of the first episode in worldbuilding mode, fleshing out the villa’s key inhabitants – Cicero and Marc in particular – first, prior to introducing any otherworldly element. This choice is so pleasing and worthwhile that it almost seems a shame when the story’s “prime” threat becomes pronounced and the setting changes from Roman villa to quasi-mythological realm.
Cicero, in the twenty years since the events of his solo series, has become a Consul and a father, as well as perhaps more jaded. Samuel Barnett therefore plays him as older and less naively optimistic, an orator who has clearly been through much in the intervening years (‘the Catiline affair’ weighs heavily on him during the story). Cicero’s scenes with the Doctor delving into the regrets of his career are some of the best.
Peter Davison affords the youthful Fifth Doctor with more than a hint of fanboyish exuberance upon meeting the icon of Roman history. Davison becomes rather breathy at times, but there is a genuine energy present in his performance.
New companion Marc is introduced as a slave in the Cicero household. George Watkins (Davison’s nephew) portrays him as humble and unassuming, with all the qualities of inquisitiveness and purity of heart that the Doctor would seek in a potential companion – meaning the eventual decision to allow him to accompany them in the TARDIS is justified, although the Doctor initially has doubts. It will be interesting to see how he progresses as a character and what his role will be across October and November, especially considering the cryptic coda to Tartarus.
Also returning from the 2018 series is Cicero’s wife Terentia, played by Laura Riseborough. Unfortunately, she is sidelined for most of the drama as the focus is drawn towards Cicero and the Doctor. Tracy-Ann Oberman, best known in the Doctor Who universe as Yvonne Hartman, like Riseborough, has not been given the most significant amount of material, but instead is an additional element to the main drama of the story.
Tartarus successfully fuses together the historical and fictional in a story held together by a distinctive guest starring performance, intriguing mythological themes and immersive world building. Cicero, a character perhaps not as widely known as other key figures of the Roman Republic, once again proves the focus of an engaging character study within the high-concept world of Doctor Who.
The twenty-minute music suite is highly orchestral and sweepingly cinematic, but also equal parts dramatic and intimate that hits all the right notes for tension and excitement. The sound design also deserves a mention, evocatively canvassing an array of settings, from a pleasant evening party to a giant bronze soldier to the insides of an artificial world synthesiser.
The interviews reveal glimpses into the writing and recording process that become all the more interesting for incorporating roundtable talks with multiple cast members rather than one-by-one. There is also a trailer for October’s Interstitial/Feast of Fear, teasing two of Marc’s subsequent trips in the TARDIS.