Big Finish Review: Doctor Who - Blood on Santa's Claw and other stories...
Big Finish is feeling particularly festive in its latest Doctor Who Main range release, which sees Colin Baker's Sixth Doctor and Nicola Bryant's Peri embark on a series of Christmas-themed adventures with new companion Joe (Luke Allen-Gale).
Blood on Santa's Claw and other stories have been written by Alan Terigo, Susan Dennom, Andrew Lias, Nev Fountain and directed by John Ainsworth. It is available to purchase at the Big Finish site here and goes on general release on the 31st January 2020. Here are the synopses...
Blood on Santa’s Claw by Alan Terigo
The Doctor, Peri and Joe land on the planet Naxios, where they discover the body of Father Christmas.
Who killed him? The strange individuals dressed in Shakespearian costume or the talking animals wearing waistcoats digging in the tunnels?
The Baby Awakes by Susan Dennom
The Doctor, Peri and Joe visit the Ishtar institute, where the term 'designer babies' takes on a new and sinister meaning. Will our heroes survive Christmas day?
I Wish It Could Be Christmas Every Day by Andrew Lias
A Christmas party that's been going on for three years. Strange silver robots who guard the Christmas decorations with lethal force. What is the secret behind the festivities on Tate Galactic?
Brightly Shone The Moon That Night by Nev Fountain
The TARDIS crew encounters a shameful secret of the Time Lords. History has been rewritten, and this time it's all the Doctor's fault.
I'll be joined by fellow Big Finish reviewer and massive Doctor Who fan - my son Ben - to discuss this latest release. Potential spoilers as we delve into Blood on Santa's Claw and other stories...
Baz Greenland (aged 38)
Blood on Santas's Claw and other stories is quite possibly the most fun I've had listening to a Big Finish release this year. Its wonderfully cheesy, full of festive tunes and a little bit of magic, making it the perfect Christmas release. It's delightfully bonkers but produced with plenty of care, certain to leave a smile on your face. Fresh from their return earlier this year, Baker's Sixth Doctor and Bryant's Peri make a great team, having a little bit more fun than they were afforded on TV. Allen-Gale's Joe is a bit of an odd addition, though I like the concept of Peri bringing her boyfriend along for a few trips in the TARDIS. Sadly, he doesn't have quite the endearing qualities as Peri though.
The first story, Blood of Santa's Claw was my favourite of the four stories, finding the Doctor, Peri and Joe already on his third trip in the TARDIS arriving in the 59th Century and an Earth where pop culture references and literary icons have become the focus of a commonplace worship. Into this adventures we have lovers of Shakespeare, speaking and acting in the playright's image with characters from his books brought to life as real people. Contrast to these with have The Wind in the Willows worshippers - human-sized badgers and rats in wasitcoats messing about on the river. It's all delightfully surreal, particularly when you thrown in the gruesome discovery of Santa's body, killed by his own reindeer.
Joe's presence in this tale feels a little odd, choosing not to indulge the Doctor on his travels to the silver mines where the Shakespearians have imprisoned the Willows-folk into slave labour. A pragmatic character, you immediately wonder why he is there; the pay off comes down the line. The heightened drama of the slaves being freed is as fun as it is ridiculous and keeps the listener hooked to the very end.
The surrealism is toned down a little in the second tale as Joe and Peri find themselves playing a happy couple trying out a 59th Century facility where you can try out your designer baby using a mix of DNA. It takes the concept of designer IVF, filtering out the bad genes to make the perfect human, to a whole new level and plays as a delightfully twisted satire on the whole concept. The Christmas concept comes with the recreation of Peri and Joe's children, with a hideous horror undertone as cute children become rampaging monsters.
The mystery around Peri's DNA and the terrible events that occur is paid later, but there's plenty of emotional turmoil for the companion in The Baby Awakes. Taking a more serious tone, it adds a nice balance of light and shade mid way through the release, before plunging back into full festivities for the gloriously kitsch I Wish It Could Be Christmas Every Day. With ominous decorations and cheesy robots ("would you like a nibble?"), the Doctor, Peri and Joe find themeslves guests in an office Christmas party that has been going on for nearly four years. Before you know it, you'll have 'We wish you a Merry Christmas' in your head over and over again.
The third story ramps up the surrealism with Steven Elder's Lord of practically nothing and a weird little mystery for the Doctor to get his teeth into. There's also a somewhat depressing development in Peri and Joe's relationship before the big twist that turns everything we've listened to on its head. Events come together spectacularly in the wonderfully titled Brightly Shone The Moon That Night. The call backs to the earlier stories and a subversion of the Doctor's actions offers plenty of twists and turns, never quite playing to expectations.
My one gripe is the treatment of Joe; while I liked how we were thrown into his adventures with the Sixth Doctor and Joe, he remains a somewhat obnoxious character, which is something to be said given the Sixth's worst traits. His role in the final two-parter drives much of the story, raising the stakes for both Peri and the Doctor, though I can't help but feel the twist concerning his identity was undermined by a similar character twist in last year's Sixth Doctor Big Finish story The Lure of the Nomad.
Blood on Santa's Claw and other stories is a delightful festive treat with plenty of humour, a dash of horror, a big dollop of magic and plenty of twists to keep the listener hooked. Colin Baker's Doctor once again proves himself the king of Doctor Who on Big Finish, ending the year with a real sense of fun, perfect for the festive period.
Ben Greenland (aged 13)
With the wait for new Doctor Who on TV until new year, it seems Big Finish has taken up the mantle to continue Doctor Who's place in the Christmas schedule. It also is the first quartet of stories released since October 2016, continuing Big Finish's recent run of formatting stories in more than just four parts. So let's see what Christmas treats await us...
The first story in this set, Blood On Santa's Claw is quite an odd one, but still perfectly lends itself towards its Christmas theme. It's a simple set-up; Santa found dead and the Doctor taking on that role to save himself and his friends. But it also just amounts to a lot of fun. Notably, this story introduces new companion Joe (also Peri's boyfriend) in true non-linear, timey-wimey Steven Moffat form. It's true he's a little side-lined here, basically spending the story having tea with the cast of The Wind In The Willows, but his presence elsewhere would have damaged how the story played out.
The main bulk of this story mainly gives way to humour with a notable scene being the Doctor's introductory 'I am Santa' quickly followed by Peri's elf act (Periwig) sounding like she's had way to much sugar. But underneath the humour, there is also quite a dark tone, in the form of the different religious factions downgraded from their beliefs and forced into another, with punishment for not doing so resulting in being tortured by Santa. Yes, that last part is true. And then we get to the reindeer themselves, well... reindeer killing Santa's in order to become the dominant religion of a planet??? Happy Christmas from Doctor Who!
The Second story, The Baby Awakes, is even darker in tone, but still a thrilling roller coaster ride throughout. It's nice to see more of Joe as we get a proper scope of parts of his character, with the Doctor taking the back seat this time around. The concept itself might seem a bit bonkers, designer babies any age that actually become your children. Peri's anger at having to come to terms with the fact that these feel like children, turns to sorrow to just despair as they become monsters. After experiencing this, the story turns into a mini base under siege adventure from the crazed robots until it becomes apparent that something a whole lot darker is going on underneath; rejects being fully aware that their 'parents' didn't want them and becoming hard and bitter is a disturbing thought, especially at Christmas. The ending is also quite dark, Peri distraught over the fact her children monster robots are lost and won't return, the fact that the Doctor uses the TARDIS to make hurt go away and just leaving Joe and the Doctor behind.
As well as sharing it's name with my favourite Christmas song of all time, I Wish It Could Be Christmas Every Day is a more light-hearted story. There is the sense of mystery and adventure, with a Christmas party three years running and robots who refuse the removal of the decorations. The Doctor takes centre stage again, slowly working out the dark truth behind the mystery with a little assistance from the Lord of Nothing, and Colin Baker gets a true chance to shine once more as he consistently does at Big Finish. Peri and Joe are more side-lined, despite their relationship having a lot more focus here to the point of a potential break-up and regret. Nicola Bryant truly shows how emotional her acting range can between this story and the last, showing more depth to Peri than we saw on TV. Towards the end, things take a turn for the worst with a shocking twist no-one would have seen coming creating a deeper sense of dread and fear and leading straight into the last festive story this month...
Brightly Shone The Moon That Night is a direct continuation. Like most of the stories this set, it side-lines the Doctor a little, but he still gets his big moments and Colin Baker still gives it his all. Instead it focuses on Peri once again, and her reaction to who Joe really is. Peri is left to confront her anger and fear when her supposed boyfriend reveals himself, tying the other stories in this set together quite nicely and rounding off Joe's very short story in a satisfying manner. The resolution isn't played for laughs either, despite the Christmas theme, and the Genocide on the Doctor's part is quite dark for this festive period. Fortunately the ending is somewhat happier as Christmas comes to the front once again, even if it is mixed with a pang of emotional sadness.
Ultimately, this box of stories was only disguised in festive cheer. In the end, it's Peri's story, about her newfound relationship, the losses she sustains and then the betrayal from her boyfriend. She has a rough time here. Nicola Bryant proves her worth in her portrayal of Peri here. It's a story of friendships and relationships with dark turns wrapped up in festive Christmas fun, and that element really helps secure this as one of the best Main Range releases this year. So well done, Big Finish, for another fabulous year of audios. I look forward to more in the years to come...
The music suite for Blood on Santa's Claw and Other Stories is all too brief; however composer Simon Power mixes any some festive charm - sleigh bells and classic Christmas music - with some heavy synth and atmospheric moments that capture the tone of these tales.
The trailer for next month's Dark Universe features the return of Sylvester McCoy's Seventh Doctor and the tease of a darker Ace and the arrival of Big Finish fan favourite villain The Eleven.
Finally, the interviews with the cast and crew are full of appreciation for writer Nev Fountain's scripts, with the writer remarking on creating secret writer identities for the other stories to keep the twists hidden from keen eyed listeners.