Big Finish Review: Doctor Who - Red Planets

August sees Sylvester McCoy takes over duties on the Doctor Who main range from Big Finish and once again the Seventh Doctor is joined by the 2017 TARDIS team Ace (Sophie Aldred) and Mel (Bonnie Langford). They kick things off with a story of the Doctor and his companions finding themselves trapped in an alternate reality.

Red Planets has been written by Una McCormack and directed by Jamie Anderson. It is available to purchase at the Big Finish site here and goes on general release on the 3th September. Here's the synopsis...

London, 2017. Except... it isn't. Berlin, 1961. But it isn't that either. Not really. Not in the timeline the Doctor knows. Something is very wrong.

While Ace tries to save the life of a wounded British spy, Mel and the Doctor must get to grips with the modern day socialist Republic of Mokoshia. For Mel it feels strangely familiar and 'right', which makes the Doctor feel even more uneasy.

Soon, a message from a dark and blood-soaked distant future is on its way... But the Doctor will have to act fast to stop this timeline becoming reality.

And with Ace stranded in an alternate 1961, will saving the Earth end her existence?

As usual, I'll be joined by my son Ben to review this latest slice of Doctor Who...

The Review...

Baz Greenland (aged 37)

Red Planets is a great little alternative history tale; rather than follow the usual 'what would have happened if Nazi Germany had won World War II?' it offers up something a little different by asking what might have happened if the height of the Cold War had led to the Soviet Union spreading across Europe. Set across two timescales - 1960s Berlin and alternate 2017 London - the story makes great use of time travel, blended with spy thriller and an examination of the social issues that are very apparent today.

Ace gets a completely separate adventure and it was refreshing to see her work outside of the Doctor's influence. I wasn't quite clear whether her trip to East Berlin and encounter with British spy Tom Elliot (Matt Barber) was planned or coincidental but it resulted in a strong partnership. The threat of Soviet forces hunting them down, vanishing streets and descending mist and Tom trying to outwit Ace at every steps made for a tense, desperate narrative running over the course of the four parts, culminating in a desperate race against time to stop a bomb being dropped on the city and history being changed forever.

With Ace on her own, there is a greater focus on the pairing of the Seventh Doctor and Mel and they get some dramatic, thought-provoking stuff to deal with, a million miles away from the farcical nature of their series 24 days. The destruction of Berlin led to the rise of the Socialist Republic of Mokoshia, spreading from Russia to the UK and it is in this alternate London that they find themselves.

The mystery of how Mel so readily knows and accepts what has changed is perhaps one of the biggest mysteries of Red Planets, suggesting perhaps that there is more to her recent return [to the Big Finish main range in 2016] than meets the eye. Certainly her encounter with a mysterious stranger at the end hints at something darker to come. Like last year's releases, this story does give Bonnie Langford a lot more to do than just scream.

Framed between a Mars landing and a London under curfew, we see the Doctor and Mel caught up in some high stakes intrigue and action, evading the authorities and getting caught up in the powerplays of secret resistance fighter Anna (Genevieve Gaunt) and the evil machinations of 'Max Bollinger's Sokolov. There's also a nice little live story between Anna and her ally Colonel Marsden (Elliot Levey), which comes to a tragic end when the secret police catch up with them.

The mystery of the secret base on Mars that the Phobia mission encounter leads to a surprise timey-wimey twist full of end of the Earth high stakes and a dramatic race against time in the final part. I was almost expecting the base to reveal the militant Ice Warriors were behind it all, but the reveal and the subsequent fallout was satisfying none the less.

Red Planets was a story that requires your full attention, but the pay off is satisfying indeed. It makes great use of both companions, flitting between two time settings, both filled with mystery, intrigue and tension. And it is one that warrant repeated listens to; the perspective of the future narrative will surely put everything in a new light.

Big Finish continues to delivers a very high standard of Doctor Who audios and once again, this story makes great use of its characters and the central time travel premise of the show to create something altogether stronger than what we got on television at the time.

Ben Greenland (aged 12)

Red Planets was a great story for Sylvester McCoy's Doctor. I found three things really interesting. One, was The Doctor referring to the issues plaguing humanity in 2017, such as the seas of plastic. Two, was that the story focused a lot on The Doctor and Mel together, with Ace given her own story, and three, the Mars setting. With the mention of a secret base on Mars no-one knows about, I was hoping for Ice Warriors to return. With no reference to the Ice Warriors before the story's release, I thought it would be a good surprise but when they hadn't revealed them by the end of part three, I began to doubt their involvement.

Red Planets has two mini stories going on. The Doctor and Mel, trying to solve the mystery of the altered timelines in 2017, and Ace and the spy Tom trying to stop the bomb and get over the wall in Berlin 1961, all while being nearly destroyed by the fog. It is interesting that Mel accepted the changes so readily, and then the stranger in the last seconds talking to her. Could be the final trilogy of stories with Mel?

The Extras...

The usual high standards for a main range Doctor Who release are all here. Between parts two and three is a six minute music suite that is bold, dramatic and makes great use of the Russian element of Red Planets to deliver an atmospheric feel to the story.

There is also a trailer for upcoming release The Dispossed, which sees the TARDIS trio return for an adventure on a haunted planet.

Finally, there is a 15 minute set of interviews with the cast including a great little segment what a Sophie Alfred takes the concept of alternate realities to consider what her life might have been like if she hadn't played Ace and how much the character has influenced her.

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