Big Finish Review: Doctor Who - The Grey Man of the Mountain
Amidst all the bounty of Doctor Who releases from Big Finish this month comes the decidedly festive The Grey Man of the Mountain, which sees Sylvester McCoy's Seventh Doctor and Sophie Aldred's Ace reunite with the Brigadier Alistair Lethbridge-Stewart, brought to life at Big Finish once more by Jon Culshaw.
The Grey Man of the Mountain has been written by Lizbeth Myles and directed by Samuel Clemens. It is available to purchase exclusively at the Big Finish site here, before going on general release on the 31st January 2021. Here's the synopsis...
Something haunts the peak of Ben MacDui.
Something with heavy footsteps, striking terror in the hearts of those who sense it. With climbers going missing, retired Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart visits Scotland to investigate.
But when some old friends join his ascent, he worries that they will make things even more dangerous. As the snows blow in, and mists surround them, the Doctor, Ace and the Brigadier will face the Grey Man of the Mountain...
Brigadier Alistair Lethbridge-Stewart is one of Doctor Who's greatest characters, brought to life by the wonderful Nicholas Courtney. It was a personal honour to dip into the world of Lethbridge Stewart, co-writing Foreword to the Past this year, a book that tapped into the character's legacy. But as a Doctor Who fan in general, any opportunity to see the Brigadier return is always a cause for celebration. Courtney made his final appearance in the show in 1989 seventh Doctor story Battlefield (though an appearance in The Sarah Jane Adventures with his last canonical appearance). The actor is sadly no longer with us and as with many iconic roles, Big Finish have made the careful, considered attempt to recast.
Impressionist and actor Jon Culshaw is that man; The Grey Man of the Mountain isn't his first time playing the Brigadier, but he has largely based the character on the 70s UNIT persona that worked alongside the Third Doctor. The version of the Brigadier here is the older, retired school teacher that worked with the Seventh Doctor and Ace to defeat Morgaine and The Destroyer and this story very much acts as a sequel to the tale, following their next encounter at some point in the late nineties. Culshaw does a decent job recreating the character, though he feels too young to be this retired version; it helps that Lizbeth Myles' script taps hardheartedly into the shared history with the Doctor that any oddities in the performance are largely dismissed.
It's wonderful to see the Brigadier of The Grey Man of the Mountain following the wise words of his former scientific adviser, putting science first in his investigation into the disappearances on Scottish mountain Ben MacDui. The arrival of the Doctor serves of something of a mediation on their relationship; the Brigadier is convinced that he can investigate the mystery without Doctor but welcomes the Time Lord assistance now that he is there. The semi-antagonistic relationship rears its head in place, adding depth to the Seventh Doctor and Brigadier relationship that was largely steeped in nostalgia in Battlefield.
Lizbeth Myles draws heavily on the Scottish legend, The Green Man of Ben MacDui. While I didn't necessarily feel that the story captured the true creepiness of the 'real accounts,' there is still plenty of atmosphere. Thanks to Samuel Clemens taught direction and wonderful sound design by Benji Clifford (who also delivers a gorgeous score), you really feel as a listener that you are on a slope of a Scottish mountain in winter, where frostbite and changing weather is just as likely to kill you as the Grey Man that lurks on the slopes. As a December release, the festive elements work too; from the talk of log fires and mince pies, The Grey Man of the Mountain is something of a Christmas treat; as a listener, I would also have quite happily followed the Seventh Doctor and Ace back to the Brigadier's Scottish home for Christmas after the end music played!
It's not just the mention of Doris or the continuation of the relationship between the Brigadier and the Seventh Doctor that makes The Grey Man of the Mountain feel like a sequel to Battlefield. The story also gives Ace a companion of her own in Lucy Goldie's Kirsty; it was a friendship that reminded me of Ace and Shou Yuing. They spend much of the four-part story stuck on the slopes of Ben MacDui, investigating the Grey man and succumbing to ravages of the cold weather. It's a strong relationship, potentially bordering on romantic too, as their final scene suggest, while also giving Ace the opportunity to drive the narrative forward.
The other characters are all decent. Vivien Reid plays two characters. While I found her landlady Janet MacKenzie bordering a little too much into broad Scottish cliche, her main performance as Niamh Godec was compelling. A Crypto-Zoologist trying to study the mystery of the Grey Man, her journey with the Doctor and Brigadier sees her proove her worth in the most hostile of situations. The descent of Youssef Kerkour' Thaddeus Kanner into villainy was perhaps a little obvious, but still provided plenty of drama in the final part. There were some terrific references to Tibet and the Yeti; there are huge shades of Second Doctor story The Abominable Snowmen in this story.
Naturally, there is always a twist in these kind of stories and the revelations surrounding the Grey Man didn't disappoint. It caps off the four part story nicely. The pace throughout is sold; this isn't a racing affair could have worked just as well as a three-parter, but it packs atmosphere, mystery and compelling journeys for many of the characters involved. While I'm not 100% sold on Culshaw's performance, I really enjoyed the Brigadier's involvement in the story and the exploration of how his relationship with the Doctor involved. And given that they have been playing these characters for years, Sylvester McCoy and Sophie Aldred never disappoint.
The Grey Man of the Mountain is a lovely Doctor Who adventure to end the year on. It might not be the most exciting story released in 2020, and the Grey Man mystery is really second fiddle, but as a Brigadier and Seventh Doctor story, Myles's script delivers in spades.
A nine minute music suite from musician and sound designer Benji Clifford accompanies the first disk. The gentle harmonies in the opening sequence capture the beauty of the Scottish landscape, complete with bag pipes and harps, before descending into a thundering percussion beat and racing strings that emphasises the menace and danger of the story. Finishing off with some gourgeous, sweeping chords, Clifford effortlessly captures the mood of The Grey Man of the Mountain.
The end of disk two has a trailer for January's Sixth Doctor story, featuring Miranda Raison's Constance. Colony of Fear promises to be a dramatic, violent tale that takes its cue from Colin Baker's TV period.
Director Samuel Clemens and producer Emma Haigh introduce the behind the scenes interviews for The Grey Man of the Mountain, drawing on the challenges of directing a cast in lock down and tapping into the wintry themes of this tale. Writer Lizbeth Myles draws on the Scottish legend, The Green Man of Ben MacDui as inspiration for the story, reflecting on the haunting accounts from Scotland's second tallest mountain that are sure to raise a a few hairs.
Sylvester McCoy reflects on working with Nicholas Courtney on 1989's Battlefield and how they were friends going into that story, just as he has become friends working with Jon Culshaw, who plays the Brigadier in this release. Culshaw is enthusiastic in capturing the older, mischievous energy of the Brigadier and Seventh Doctor's relationship. Sophie Aldred enjoys the idea of Ace having her own companion in the story; Lizbeth Myles draws on Ace's own quasi companions, like Rona Munro from 1989's Survival, something that is very apparent when listening to the The Grey Man of the Mountain. Lucy Goldie (Kirsty) also reflects fondly on that friendship with Ace that develops throughout the story.There's also a delight from Aldred on the openness of Ace as she reflects on that kiss at the end.
Vivien Reid is full of passion in playing Crypto-Zoologist, while Culshaw is particularly fond of Reid's other character Janet MacKenzie. The Brigadier's enjoyment of many cups of tea and lots of Garibaldi is a wonderful visual to imagine!