Big Finish Review: Doctor Who - An Alien Werewolf in London
Sylvester McCoy's Doctor and vulpine companion Mags (Jessica Martin) are joined this month by their old friend Ace (Sophie Aldred) in the latest Doctor Who main range release from Big Finish.
Written by Alan Barnes and directed by Samuel Clemens, An Alien Werewolf in London is available to purchase at the Big Finish site here and goes on general release on the 31st July 2019. Here's the synopsis...
A space-time summons brings the TARDIS to the strangest place Mags has yet visited. A haven for the freakiest freaks and the weirdest weirdoes: Camden Lock, London, in the early 1990s.
But there's a reason why former TARDIS traveller Ace has brought the old gang back together. She’s on a mission to rescue an alien being, held prisoner in a massive mansion…
A mission that can’t possibly go wrong. Can it?
I'm honoured to be joined by peerless Whovian reviewer Ben Greenland to review this story. (His review is probably far more sensible than mine!)
TD Velasquez (Age 40)
I need to confess a pet peeve. Doctor Who as a TV series, especially in what we now call the 'classic' years, never shied away from titles like (to pick two at random) Terror of the Zygons or Mawdryn Undead, which somehow managed to be melodramatic and nearly meaningless at the same time. The spin-off novels, early Big Finish releases and the revival TV series seemed to shy away from this, so for a while we had the pleasure of more affecting, even poetic titles such as Human Nature, Creatures of Beauty and The Parting of the Ways.
But these days most Big Finish Doctor Who adventures seem to exclusively parody a well-known moniker from pop culture or centre around a made-up noun. The current Seventh Doctor/Mags trilogy exemplified this tendency with opener The Monsters of Gokroth and does so again with An Alien Werewolf in London. Come on fellas, try harder with the titles!
That grumpy old person gripe aside, this story is good fun. One of the key features of Sylvester McCoy's TV stories - a strength or a weakness depending largely on the mood you're in - was their hectic pacing and tendency to cram in far more story elements than three or four episodes could sensibly contain.
Big Finish's stories have, of late, done a good job of emulating this style, and accordingly An Alien Werewolf in London seems to pack a whole story into Part One alone, giving us a mystery investigation, an infiltration of a lair and a confrontation with the villains before we even get a cliffhanger. But there is a cliffhanger of course, and the story twists into a whole new direction.
Like McCoy's TV script editor Andrew Cartmel, who based the character of Ace on Alan Moore's Halo Jones, Werewolf writer Alan Barnes draws a lot of inspiration from comic strips for his knockabout-fast, imaginative stories (Barnes wrote Doctor Who Magazine's comic strip for many years). To go into too much detail would be to spoil some neat twists, but this is a tale that mixes an alien along the lines of Star Trek's Salt Vampire, a Hellfire Club-like organisation, ancient feuds, Aussie soap operas (a hilarious and merciless parody called Maroona Springs) and a mountain of period-appropriate pop culture references as the Seventh Doctor and Mags arrive to help out their old friend Ace, now based in 1990s Camden.
I have to admit that I have long since lost track of what's supposed to have happened to Ace since she ceased travelling with the Doctor (that's the danger, I suppose, of having your departure story fall between the cancellation and revival of the show). Depending on which books, comic strips or audio dramas you read or listen to, she either became a space marine, got killed, settled on Gallifrey, outlived the Doctor or founded a charity (according to The Sarah Jane Adventures). Her multiple timelines make the confusion of chronologies around Jamie Lee Curtis' Laurie Strode in the Halloween film series look straightforward. So I have no idea why she's ended up in Camden in the early Nineties, but who cares, because Sophie Aldred always sounds like she's having fun playing her, and Ace's being there allows her to reunite with Jessica Martin's Mags for the first time since 1988's TV story The Greatest Show in the Galaxy.
Bringing back Mags, a moody punk werewolf (technically an alien Vulpanan, but to all intents and purposes she's a werewolf) played by Martin with a sort of sullen cuteness, was a bright idea. She, McCoy and Aldred had instant chemistry in 1988, and that spark comes back in its entirety here. Mags by her nature is a fish out of water in most places, and Barnes's script has fun with her first view of Earth being through the lens of 1990s London counterculture (memorably summed up by the Doctor as "the weirdos, the goths and the refuseniks") and in paralleling her dual and monstrous nature with that of other characters (she's far from the only Gothic horror escapee in this story).
Martin inhabits Mags effortlessly and agelessly (despite these days focusing more on her work as an acclaimed graphic novel author than on acting). She even gets to play a well-justified dual role, as does Shiloh Coke, who form no less than two different, engaging double-acts. In fact almost all the actors here get to play multiple roles in one way or another, but it isn't noticeable, which is a credit to the cast and director. And the whole thing bounces along at enjoyable speed. Despite multiple creatures of the night in evidence, the story never really attempts to be frightening, but succeeds in being colourfully macabre.
I indicated near the beginning of this review that enjoyment of Sylvester McCoy's Doctor Who depends on what mood you're in as much as anything, and I should concede that, if you happen to be feeling uncharitable, there's probably plenty to irk you in An Alien Werewolf in London. The aforementioned mountain of pop culture references, winkingly and repeatedly identified as such in the dialogue by way of explanation to the uncomprehending Mags, could be tiring, a series of nods to the film from which the story's title is stolen being especially groanworthy. A mid-story 'shock' has the Doctor apparently betray Ace, something which has happened so often by now that it's beyond even parody - although Barnes is clever enough to introduce a plot reason why the Doctor himself doesn't quite know which side he's on.
And perhaps it's cheap to make so many jokes at the expense of Antipodean soap operas - especially in a story set in the period when British television was producing Eldorado. But overall, this feels fun and fresh - no small achievement given that Big Finish have been producing adventures with McCoy and Aldred for getting on for twenty years.
I have to admit, I haven't heard the other audio dramas featuring Mags, but based on this I'm tempted to check them out. Big Finish is a company that often trades heavily and justifiably on nostalgia, but in bringing back Jessica Martin's Mags, they have unearthed a sliver of nostalgia that feels new.
Ben Greenland (age 13)
I hope that at some point in the future, I remember to see Mason Master Robert Smythston (With a y) and persuade him to incorporate a secret link to the Big Finish website so this audio can be purchased. Alas, here we are at the end of the Mags trilogy, which has been a mixed bag. April's The Monsters of Gokroth was appalling, May's The Moons of Vulpana got better, and this month's An Alien Werewolf in London is amazing. I find it very surprising that it has taken this long in order to create a Doctor Who edition of this (almost) same iconic title, but it serves little purpose to the story sadly.
The main cast, of Sylvester McCoy, Jessica Martin and Sophie Aldred are on top form, as per usual, making this story fast paced and enjoyable. Aldred returns as Ace in this tale, making The Greatest Show in the Galaxy cast complete once more. I will say though, that it does bug me about the fact that we jump to Ace's reunion with the Doctor here without actually knowing how they departed company in the first place. But my major issue with Ace in this tale is she serves no purpose other than to get the story going. She's great, but wasted. The Doctor gets a decent amount to do, paired with the sin eater to stop the mini organisation coming after them, but fittingly, it is Mags who gets the meat on the bones, if you'll excuse the pun. Hospitalised after becoming a Vulpanan once more, she gets her own mini drama almost like something out of a soap opera, trying to escape all the while trying not to enter the full moon.
The villains themselves, The Feratu, feel like the weak link in this tale, only to provide back-story to where Rufus comes from and his motives. They're still good, but still just vampires albeit with a bit of a spin on their nature. In many ways, this feels like a return to the early days of the main range, 1999-2001, incorporating many elements that have been previously featured. My last point is the ending. I expected Mags (possibly even Ace) to die or at least leave at the end, but she just goes off with the Doctor. It bugs me and the same thing happened with Flip and Constance, although they have a likelier chance of returning. This was a strong and fun audio, ending the very mixed quality Mags trilogy on a high.
CD1 gives us a track of Joe Meiner's enjoyably upbeat (and very McCoy-era-appropriate) musical score, while CD2 has an extended clip from Maroona Springs (only heard in the background in the story itself) which is pricelessly high-camp.
CD2 also features the usual brief behind-the-scenes interviews, with Barnes (also the range's outgoing script editor) discussing the inspiration behind bringing back Mags, and McCoy and Aldred sweetly enthusiastic as ever.