Big Finish Review: Doctor Who – The Flying Dutchman / Displaced
From the high seas to the Norfolk lowlands, Big Finish brings us another double in the monthly range of Doctor Who adventures, with two very different kinds of stories in the mix. First up, the Seventh Doctor, Ace and Hex fall foul of bad-tempered pirates in The Flying Dutchman, before encountering the legendary ghost ship herself. Next, Displaced traps the trio in an ordinary family home with no way out and only an electronic device for company. Sound familiar?
The Flying Dutchman/Displaced has been written by Gemma Arrowsmith and Katharine Armitage, and directed by Samuel Clemens. It is available to purchase at the Big Finish site here, before going on general release on the 31st October 2020. Here's the synopsis...
The Flying Dutchman by Gemma Arrowsmith
The Doctor, Ace and Hex find themselves on a seemingly deserted boat in the middle of the ocean. Eventually locating the crew, they discover that the men have been in hiding to avoid the attack of the legendary ghost ship The Flying Dutchman that they’ve recently glimpsed approaching through the fog. But ghosts don’t exist. Do they?
Displaced by Katharine Armitage
The Doctor, Ace and Hex arrive inside a mystery. An ordinary house where something extraordinary is happening. There are no occupants, the doors are sealed, and someone - or something - is attempting to communicate. And when the TARDIS locks them out, Ace and Hex suspect the Doctor of his usual tricks. But the truth is even more disturbing...
The Flying Dutchman by Gemma Arrowsmith
In a scene-setting prologue to the main action of The Flying Dutchman, we encounter a ship of pirates riding out a storm. “Many souls are lost in these seas”, one warns ominously. Cries of “watch the yard-arm” and warnings of “mysterious waters” set the scene perfectly, aided by lavish music and haunting sound effects from Howard Carter - the creaking decks and lapping waves are a feast for the ears. It’s not long before Archie, the cabin boy (Carly Day), is first to see a ghostly sight on the horizon.
“This is Earth. Can’t mistake that gravity.” This is how The Doctor, Ace and Hex arrive on the same boat to find the crew missing. Ace (Sophie Aldred) and Hex (Philip Olivier) suggest that the scene reminds them of the Mary Celeste: “don’t remind me”, replies the Doctor.
There’s some good teasing of the Doctor in these early sections, enhancing the fun, low-stakes vibe of this story. Sylvester McCoy marvellously conveys the Doctor’s frustration in Ace and Hex’s shared skepticism that he can take control of the Isabella. The Doctor recites Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner, but acknowledges the slight anachronism: it’s the mid-18th century, a little before Coleridge’s time.
Below decks, the team find the Isabella’s crew, who promptly suggest drowning their new companions - but decide in the end to lock them in the brig. “Never a moment’s rest travelling with you, is there?”, asks Hex.
The Flying Dutchman, it turns out, is a well-known portent of doom: and the sight of the unnaturally glowing ship in the distance sent the crew into hiding. They recall the terrifying moans of the dead as “souls caught between worlds.” The Doctor and friends also learn that the well-born Captain Marfleet (Nicholas Khan), in charge of the crew, is somewhat lacking as a leader: causing resentment among the crew, particularly the gruff and pragmatic Unsworth (Stephen Wight).
Soon, the team is freed by the sympathetic Archie, and they set about looking for evidence, while they’re taunted by ghostly laughter and an eerie presence. While the story moves fast, there’s just a little bit of filler as the familiar beats of a Doctor Who are hit - and the team are captured, set free and captured again. This does lead us to a mass brawl, with some good pirate-y yells and swashbuckling clanging of swords, so it’s not all bad. Ace, as always, proves handy with a weapon.
When the Dutchman returns, the tensions between Marfleet and his crew are brought to the surface. As ever, Big Finish stories are often at their best when they play out modern issues against the backdrop of the past: the class-based resentment which Unsworth holds against Marfleet mirrors our current mistrust for elites and ‘establishment’ leaders. There’s a great ambiguity here: like all good villains, those of The Flying Dutchman actually have a point to make.
Even though the story is wrapped up pretty quickly, with a twist or two that Scooby Doo would be proud of, it’s a great showcase for Ace and Hex, who get a lot of funny and characterful moments. Above all, it’s a joyously uncomplicated romp, recalling the very best of the Seventh Doctor era. Which leads us to...
Displaced by Katharine Armitage
This story, from writer Katharine Armitage (making her Big Finish debut) lands the team in a living room in 2020 after the Tardis goes a bit haywire. They’re in the Norfolk Fens: the house appears to be mysteriously frozen in time, with sealed doors and windows, and the TARDIS is equally inaccessible. There’s more gentle bickering as the team size up their situation
A smart speaker named Harri (Patience Tomlinson), a home assistant who’s fond of cryptic pronouncements, greets them, but quickly spooks Hex and Ace by reciting a riddle. “Change one curse”, the gadget intones, as the house appears to come alive around them. The claustrophobic atmosphere is abetted by the cut-down cast. It plays like a less gothic version of The Chimes at Midnight, as a dark intelligence seems to be pulling the strings and changing the house around the Doctor, and as comparisons go it’s good company to be in.
The bickering quickly turns into fighting - the Doctor’s actions in The Flying Dutchman seem to contribute to Hex’s paranoia here. While the troubles mount, a clever gambit from the Doctor turns the situation around. The slow and steady accumulation of detail keeps us guessing until the very end about the nature of the threat involved.
“The door is back to hating me.”
Perhaps the story’s biggest coup comes when it turns the ‘off-brand smart speaker’ trope into a clever twist. We’re all familiar with the efforts that storytellers make to avoid mentioning Google or Amazon, which ties in well to the use of the ‘Harri’ device here, and makes a certain reveal all the more unexpected.
Displaced it’s a story of intergalactic driftwood and human failings, leading to a sentimental yet bittersweet ending. Armitage’s writing wrings the plot for every drop of menace and anxiety it’s worth, and it’s an extremely promising debut. The juxtaposition of thrills and frights in two stories make this release from Big Finish a must-listen.
The excellent music suite from The Flying Dutchman, from composer Howard Carter, leads us into the standard cast and crew interviews. Matt Fitton, script editor on The Flying Dutchman/Displaced, refers to this era of the Hex adventures as the ‘Buffyverse’ era - with emotional storytelling foregrounded and a certain amount of continuity built in to the core team’s relationships.
Sam Clemens, director of both stories, remarks that The Flying Dutchman is an exciting episode, while Displaced is very contained, like a feature film. He also notes that writer Katharine Armitage was equally emboldened to focus on character and the intricate plot involved.
Sylvester McCoy, Sophie Aldred and Philip Olivier also join: Olivier notes that, as Hex, he spends most of The Flying Dutchman tied up. In Displaced, the brother/sister relationship between Hex and Ace predominates, but there’s also a hint of romance.
The supporting cast also get a chance to weigh in: Nicholas Khan, who played Marfleet, compliments the nuance of the Marfleet-Unsworth relationship in The Flying Dutchman. Stephen Wight is equally complimentary about the arc of the story and discusses Unsworth’s motivations. Nigel Faires, who played Curtis, is complimentary about his role here: “an old seadog... doom everywhere he goes.” Meanwhile, from Displaced, Patience Tomlinson (Harri) and Alexander Bean (The Craw) talk about being asked to perform somewhat unusual roles.
Writer Katharine Armitage notes the parallels between Displaced and our current, locked down state of affairs: despite the episode being written and recorded prior to the pandemic reaching Britain. Being stuck in a house with a pseudo-family, Armitage says, was "“the scariest thing I could think of.”