Big Finish Review: Doctor Who - The Blazing Hour
As the penultimate instalment in the Big Finish monthly range, one might expect a sense of an ending from The Blazing Hour. But this is no dewy-eyed farewell, or a calm before the storm: it’s an explosive disaster thriller with a deep anger at the heart of it, paying tribute to the glory years of Doctor Who while taking aim at contemporary villains in our world. It’s a potent cocktail.
The Blazing Hour has been written by James Kettle, and directed by Ken Bentley. It’s available to purchase at the Big Finish site here, before going on general release from the 31st March 2021. Here's the synopsis…
The TARDIS brings the Doctor and Turlough to a high-tech scientific installation on the planet Testament in the distant future. The human race have become intergalactic buccaneers, thanks to their ability to generate vast amounts of power for long-distance travel. Testament is the source of that power – and the Doctor has never quite understood how it works.
But experiments are underway on Testament - experiments with potentially explosive and devastating consequences. And even the Doctor may be too late to stop it.
With politicians and bureaucrats getting in the way, the race is on. Not to stop a disaster - but to save as many people as possible.
The Fifth Doctor (Peter Davison) and Turlough (Mark Strickson) land the TARDIS in a maternity suite. The Doctor worries he’ll have to explain the birds and the bees, but we’re mercifully spared that. They’re on Testament, a colony of the human empire, where the humans rule over an indigenous race of humanoids, the Testamentarians. The Doctor compliments the human race, calling them indomitable in their conquest of the galaxy - Turlough prefers ‘incorrigible’.
Testament is sort of a galactic Dungeness, a powerhouse which generates the energy needed for all that intersteller exploration, and is therefore the backbone of their economy. But there are dark rumours about how the power is really generated. Violet Hardaker (Rakie Ayola), the government’s deputy leader, wants an exponential increase in the planet's power output - and offers a reward to the scientist Horobin (Raj Ghatak) to boost it, by any means. But Ellison (Lynsey Murrell), a scientist working at the plant, anticipates a catastophe, and a “blazing hour” of destruction for Testament, if the plans go ahead.
“You need to overcome the reservations of others, Mr Horobin. That is the art of leadership”
Meanwhile, The Doctor and Turlough have their own suspicions and decide to pay a visit to the facility, and are quickly given tour passes by the trusting Montgomery (Donna Berlin). It turns out there are conspiracy theories circulating about the true source of Testament’s energy, and several saboteurs have infiltrated the facility to discover the truth. It’s not spoiling too much to say that the scientists are tinkering with something that ought not to be tinkered with.
“Don’t worry about me. I’ve got a wristband”
There’s a truly apocalyptic mood as the Doctor makes his investigations, but fails to persuade Horobin in time to stop the first test - which unleashes death, destruction and very unusual sci-fi consequences, as an explosion rips through the facility. In its portrait of overwhelming natural forces which scientists don’t totally understand, or know how to control, The Blazing Hour is quietly terrifying, and can’t help but recall the Chernobyl meltdown.
That’s not only due to the explosive nature of the disaster, but the rush to cover it up - and to press ahead at the cost of human lives. The philosophy of Hardaker and her government is that of constant economic expansion: with a staggering human cost. The story here recalls the politically charged, anti-capitalist themes that proliferated in Doctor Who in the late 1980s under the oversight of script editor Andrew Cartmel. In Kettle’s vision of the future, the failings of the facility on Testament aren’t individual, but institutional.
Hardaker is a pantomine villain, of course, but the way that the character of the scientist Horobin embodies these ideas is more nuanced. He forces Ellison, at gunpoint, to restart the operation: in pressing ahead with the experiment, he illustrates the way that greed and corruption are entrenched by people who are just following orders. Trying to halt the experiment and save lives, the Doctor is told by Horobin that he’s merely trying to hold back progress. Horobin's denial of reality, and his determination to trust only the evidence of his own eyes, is chilling - and very timely.
But Kettle lays his political commentary over the bones of a finely-tuned disaster narrative. As the survivors grimly march on, pursuing a solution in different ways across three storylines, Kettle pays tribute to the all-star disaster movies of the 1970s which would regularly juggle different story threads. There’s also a ‘control room’ scene late in the game which recalls, of all things, a key moment of tension in Jurassic Park. I was so entertained by the story of The Blazing Hour that its confident and deft story construction went unnoticed, at first.
The scripts also delivers on characters, both old and new. Turlough’s trademark sourness and sarcasm is here, and his demurral upon being asked what gift shop souvenir a young boy would prefer is priceless. As the Doctor, Peter Davison is as good as ever. His disgust, when Hardaker refers to “people like us” to compare herself to the Doctor, is palpable. Later, when he believes that he’s lost Turlough for good, his famous stiff upper lip crumbles to nothing. Davison's performance is truly heartbreaking.
“You’re quite a demoralising person to be around at times, dear. Have a scone”
Among the supporting cast, too, Rakie Ayola is a standout. She captures the loathsomeness and manipulation of Hardaker perfectly, but also her charisma and steeliness. It’s easy to see how she achieves her aims: for the people she meets, non-compliance simply isn’t an option.
As the story develops and the survivors work their way back towards daylight, a real darkness settles in. Witness how saboteurs are dealt with at the facility, and what happens to the immediate victims of the scientific mishaps on Testament. This isn't a story which pulls its punches, and there’s no poetic justice in seeing who lives and dies.
The Blazing Hour isn’t a perfect adventure. A compact, six-person cast means that the story never feels as high-stakes or wide-reaching as it could, and the script’s way of explaining this away feels hasty. Meanwhile the story’s colonial world, with an exploited indigenous underclass, is fascinating and could have been explored more thoroughly - although Kettle draws it out with a little more depth towards the end of the story.
The cataclysm is resolved through individual acts of bravery and sacrifice, and the defeat of self-destructive, defeatist thinking. Fittingly, the ending promises the possibility of change and redemption for the people of Testament. Taking a tried-and-true premise and executing it very well, fuelling it with righteous fury, this is a solid addition to the canon of Peter Davison stories, and a fitting reminder of just how good Doctor Who can be when the stars align.
Included in the release is the music suite from veteran Big Finish composer Howard Carter - he summons atmospheric textures, with looming strings creating a sense of foreboding in the background. Cleverly, he uses ghostly choirs to underscore the apocalyptic themes in play, with sudden stabs of grating synth underpinning dramatic moments. It’s stylish, subtle and very good.
A trailer for the next and final monthly Doctor Who adventure promises a shadowy villain, declaring war on the universe. As per usual! Turlough and the Fifth Doctor continue straight into this from The Blazing Hour, while Six, Constance, Eight and Charlotte join the fray. But where’s Seven?
The usual cast and crew interviews offer a range of interesting insights into the conception and creation of the story. Director Ken Bentley reveals that the night before recording the episode, he watched HBO’s Chernobyl, and could immediately see where the seed of James Kettle’s idea came from. There’s also more insight into the fun, and slightly fiddly, process of remotely recording a full cast audio drama - including the challenge of including Mark Strickson, delivering his lines all the way from New Zealand.