Big Finish Review: Doctor Who - Shadow Planet World Apart

The next Big Finish release continues the themes of Alien Heart Dalek Soul and Vortex Ice Cortex Fire with two loosely linked tales, this time featuring Sylvester McCoy's Seventh Doctor. Fan favourite companion Ace (Sophie Aldred) is back and they are joined by former Big Finish companion Hex, voiced by Philip Olivier.

Both stories, Shadow Planet and World Apart, have been released on digital audio and CD. It's available for Big Finish customers now and goes on general release on the 31st July. Here's the synopses...

Shadow Planet by AK Benedict

Troubled? Anxious? Tormented by self-doubt? Come to Unity, the psychic planet! From our therapy centre beside Unity’s idyllic shores, the Unity Corporation can help you overcome all your problems. How? By using a patented combination of technology and Jungian psychology, we can bring you face to face with your shadow self. The hidden you. The dark you. The you that no-one knows…

Rest assured: the process is perfectly safe. Nothing can possibly go wrong. And that’s guaranteed!

World Apart by Scott Handcock

If you’re reading this, it’s too late.

There’s no way off this planet.

You will never escape Nirvana.

As usual, I'll be joined by my 11-year old son Ben, one of the biggest Doctor Who fans this side of Gallifrey.

The Review...

Baz Greenland (age 35)

The Seventh Doctor and Ace were the TARDIS trio I remember most from my childhood as always it's great to hear Sylvester McCoy and Sophie Aldred bantering together like old times. It's been quite a while since I listened to a Seventh Doctor audio and my first experience of former Big Finish companion Hex (resurrected for this story from an earlier point in my timeline. Fortunately it was another cracking tale, my favourite in the main range this year.

The first tale, Shadow Planet gets straight down to business with the Doctor and his two companions landing on the planet Unity with surreal tranquil beaches and colourful oceans where they can relax. Naturally the Doctor is suspicious and the self-help program, literally removing your 'negative personality' and putting it in an adroid is rather insidious.

I loved the concept of talking to your shadow self; therapy often involves confronting your issues but putting those issues into a physical host is a bold sci-fi idea that naturally goes horribly wrong when the shadow selves get loose. The added idea of a company mining the psychic energy of the planet and displacing the local population (after forcing them to build the facility) is a perfect metaphor for corporate greed. Belinda Lang's host Mrs Wheeler is a brilliant villain, particularly when hapless assistant Sandy (Sarah Thom) is revealed to be her shadow self, forced to work for her. Nickolas Grace plays the doomed professor who created a monster well and Ben Mansfield's Loglan is a great ally as all hell breaks loose.

But the real joy in this story and the next is Aldred and Olivier. In Shadow Planet we get to see them play their heroic and shadow selves; the good versions racing to save the people as the planet collapses and the negative versions simply content to lie on the beach and let the world end. McCoy also gets to have fun with the Doctor, realising that he's been to the planet before and giving it 'therapy' by tricking it with his own shadow self - naturally the other version is strikingly similar and there was something rather loveable about the two Seventh Doctors bouncing each other (just as it was with Colin Baker's Sixth Doctor in last May's Vortex Ice.

Shadow Planet is linked to World Apart by the cliffhanger as the TARDIS crashes into a planet as it travels through the Vortex. The second story is equally strong while very different. It starts with a great mystery of the planet, Nirvana, bereft of life until the shocking discovery of alien bodies within a series of caves. Realising that the planet exists out of time and they will be trapped forever, the Doctor and Ace race back to the TARDIS, only for his companion to be left behind as she rushes to save Hex.

From there, it becomes a character journey for the two companions and for the most part, a Doctor-lite story. Handcock's script really allows Aldred and Olivier to explore the dynamic between their characters, from his awkward attempts to flirt to a battle for survival as they trek the icy plains in search of food and shelter. Both actors take full advantage of the second part; with the Doctor largely out of the equation and the audience tracking their harrowing journey through Ace's bleak status reports, we get the sense that they really suffer. At the same time, there is some lively banter between the two characters, the actors infusing enough joy to the proceedings to stop it from becoming a miserable affair. You can really get the sense that Olivier and Aldred are slipping back into their roles with ease.

The ending is great too; the Doctor finds a way to rescue them from Nirvana after spending what might be decades or even centuries trying to get away the temporal anomaly that is the planet. Fans are reminded just how dark and manipulative McCoy's Doctor can get too in the reveal that he took far longer than he needed in order to save the planet at the potential cost of his own companions' safety. hex is understandably furious while Ace sits somewhere in the middle, fully aware of the nature of the Time Lord she travels with. The Seventh Doctor's apparent refusal to accept he was wrong gives the story a bittersweet ending.

There are several differences between the two stories, but both absolutely deliver, the first delivering a fascinating concept through the shadow selves and the second taking the time to explore the main characters and put them through their paces. The biggest success for me is the interplay between the Seventh Doctor, Ace and Hex and it remains one of the better Big Finish releases I have listened to this year.

Ben Greenland (age 11)

In 2004, Hex joined the TARDIS crew. And now, for the final instalment of the two-story trilogy of Big Finish audios, he’s back! Shadow Planet has some interesting themes; having your shadow self, the negative you, buried down inside yourself, ripped out of you by a machine so you can negotiate your differences then become one again. Therapists will enjoy this story a lot, like my mum, who isn’t usually interested in classic Doctor Who, but wants to listen to it.

There is plenty of humour to be found like a planet called Hair while Shadow Ace and Shadow Hex lying on a beach while Umbra is being torn apart is just hilarious. And who can forget the two dancing Doctors! The Doctor does say he visited the planet once before, so it is hard to tell which incarnation it was, until he remarks it was his previous incarnation, implying it was the Sixth Doctor.

Shadow Planet finishes, like Alien Heart Dalek Soul, on a cliffhanger. The concluding World Apart is quite a different story, in that it’s part Doctor-lite. Part one sets up a mystery in part two. During the cave scene in the first part, I thought the figure might be a zombie. You don’t find out the true nature until part two. Also with Hex patrolling the beach, it gives us an insight to his feeling about Ace. The cliffhanger is particularly thrilling, implying the that the Hostile Action Displacement System (HADS) even though it’s useful, sometimes comes into action too early as The TARDIS strands Hex and Ace on the planet in an effort to escape.

Part two is where the story becomes Doctor lite. It is quite fun for a whole 25 minutes of Ace and Hex and even has some horror mixed in. The bit before the the companions are rescued is pure horror until Sylvester McCoy's Doctor saves the day. Overall the box was excellent, and, not forgetting to say it, my favourite story was Shadow Planet. Having two two-part stories was an interesting idea for the main range for the last three months, but this month it returns to one four-part story in The High Price of Parking...

The Extras...

The first CD finishes with a lovely atmospheric soundtrack from Shadow Planet; it really demonstrates you just how good the music is on these audios. The two tracks feel delightfully eighties / early nineties in tone, with a mix of eerier motifs and dramatic moments.

A trailer for the frankly bizarre sounding The High Price Of Parking featuring more Seventh Doctor and Ace, this time joined be retuning companion Mel (in the first of three upcoming releases this year). A planetary war over parking? I'm intrigued to see how that story plays out.

Finally, the second CD ends with the usual interviews with the cast and crew. Sophie Aldred continues to relish playing Ace (please bring her back to main Doctor Who and there are some nice moments as Aldred and Philip Olivier chat about Hex's surprise return and where in his timeline this story fits in. I also enjoyed Belinda Lang's insight into her villainous character Mrs Wheeler and Sarah Thom's attempts to play the meeker version of her in Sandy.

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