Big Finish Review: Doctor Who - Thin Time/Madquake
Thin Time/Madquake offers a well-matched double bill of audio adventures for the Fifth Doctor (Peter Davison), sending him to the near-past of Victorian London and the far future of the planet Callanna. It also deftly balances stand-alone fun and long-running continuity: a perfect example of Big Finish satisfying old fans while bringing news ones into the fold.
Thin Time / Madquake has been written by Dan Abnett and Guy Adams, and directed by Scott Handcock. It is available to purchase at the Big Finish site here and goes on general release on the 30th September 2020. Here are the synopses…
Thin Time by Dan Abnett
Hallowe’en, 1892. Celebrated novelist Charles Crookshap claims to have been receiving time communiqués, promising secrets that could change the world forever. But when the TARDIS interrupts the household’s evening, the Doctor realises he isn’t the only alien interloper in London.
Madquake by Guy Adams
Abandoned on the planet Callanna, Nyssa, Tegan and Marc take advantage of its therapeutic atmosphere to come to terms with recent events; but others seek to take advantage too. The Slitheen are on their way – and they’re ready to sell this world to the highest bidder!
First of all, it’s All Hallow’s Eve, 1892, and the Doctor appears in a London townhouse at precisely the wrong time.
Charles Crookshap, the most famous novelist of his time, has supposedly been writing a book for six months - but his visiting pal Hobshaw realises that he’s actually been pursuing something even stranger. He’s following instructions he receives in his dreams, believing them to be communiqués from his future self. Hobshaw dismisses this as simply “quite excellent material for one of your scientific romances”, but Crookshap is deadly serious. Indeed, he’s converted his dining room into a gauche ‘magic chamber’, daubing the walls with symbols, designs and alignments. Crookshap’s manservant Stubbs and his housekeeper Miss Polly have been keeping well out of it.
Crookshap believes that tonight is the night for the great experiment to culminate, it being Halloween, “when the veil of time is thin” and the world becomes permeable. Hobshaw suggests it’s Charlie’s brain that might have become permeable, but Crookshap proceeds.
Enter the Doctor, the appearance of whom persuades Crookshap that the experiment has been a success. The Doctor instructs him to remove the symbols, and John and Stubbs to secure the windows and doors. According to him, London 1892 is indeed a thin spot in the fabric of time - and something is very close to coming in. He senses something malevolent on the other side of the breach in time, trying to get through, and reshaping the history to allow it safe passage. A case in point: the future remembers Hobshaw, but not the allegedly famous Crookshap. Meanwhile, something terrifying is waiting outside the house.
A spooky, penny dreadful-esque atmosphere pervades Thin Time. It’s a wonderfully creepy chiller, perfectly evoking Doctor Who’s previous forays into Victorian parlor rooms. Abnett has a fine eye for period details - an elephant’s foot umbrella stand, for example - which really sells the story. Thin Time also comes close to articulating an entirely plausible explanation for the events therein. It takes the time and the effort to construct a framework of plausibility, which science fiction rarely does - the work is greatly appreciated. Abnett also weaves in a very clever meta-joke, which I won’t spoil here, about fictional place names. Meanwhile the ensemble are perfectly cast, especially Khan and Lewis-Nyawo, who make the most of Stubbs and Miss Polly’s sweet relationship.
After a bittersweet conclusion, the Doctor encounters a familiar face who gives some vital perspective, encouraging him to return to his friends. As the Doctor puts it, he needed time to keep the world at a distance - but that time’s over for him. Which leads us to part two...
We rejoin Tegan and Nyssa, left behind by the Doctor after the events of Conversion, and blissed out on the beautiful Callanna. The planet induces a sense of calm wellbeing at night, soothing agitated states - which Tegan doesn’t favour. Despite their state of mind, they’re both feeling betrayed: Nyssa even says that she hopes the Doctor never comes back.
Their companion Marc (George Watkins), meanwhile, is fretting about his partial Cyber-conversion, feeling trapped between states of being - and coming to terms with his near invulnerability and astonishing power. He has frequent mental lapses of humanity and is terrified of what he's become. Professor Cott (Kate Isitt) is the only person to whom he can speak frankly: she’s an academic and therapist working on the planet. Cott is helping Mison (Raj Ghatak), a war veteran recovering from the mental wounds of fighting in battle - an experience he vividly relives each night, waking up screaming.
Madquake takes a lot of time to deal with the nature of trauma, as Marc also experiences a crisis of purpose. As Tegan points out, labels aren’t who we are - especially pertinent for Professor Cott, who’s also concealing a secret, and trying to escape from her own pre-assigned destiny.
Mison: “We all keep things hidden inside”
Tegan: “Not literally!”
The arrival of a colossal ship and a formidable alien threat interrupts the healing process. It’s the Slitheen, making a rare appearance in a Big Finish story! The team must scramble to protect the planet, and keep it from being stolen entirely - without the Doctor’s help.
Guy Adams perfectly understands the delightfully creepy and alien characteristics which make the Slitheen compelling, if divisive, villains. Bella and Grumma (Dona Croll and Harley Viveash) are a great duo, funny, but not enough to upset the sense of tension: even when their trademark flatulent humour comes into play. As an adventure which has to do a lot of psychological heavy lifting, Madquake is a slower, more contemplative type of story which earns its pathos.
Thin Time/Madquake is a Big Finish instalment which is well worth your investment - even if long-time listeners might find they have to wait a little longer than expected to see Team TARDIS reunited. The union of a fast-paced sci-fi mystery, and a slower dive into the emotional consequences of long-gestating character arcs, makes these stories perfect companions.
The package includes a trailer for Sylvester McCoy’s next adventure, another two-part story. First, there’s The Flying Dutchman - a tantalising prospect, promising swashbuckling action and Ace dropping into a macho atmosphere: always great fun for Doctor Who. The second part is Displaced, a horror story set on Earth in 2020. Whether it deals with coronavirus or not, we’ll find out next month.
The cast and crew interviews here are a treasure trove of behind-the-scenes insight. Director Scott Handcock shares his love of the double bill, and how they allow Big Finish to tell the kind of stories which don’t work in a four-part format - and allows a greater variety, too.
The cast of Thin Time including Peter Davison, Luyanda Unati Lewis-Nyawo and Wilf Scolding welcome the opportunity provided by the audio drama format to go deep into characterisation - as opposed to the corridor-running of Doctor Who’s screen adventures.
Handcock talks about how the Madquake script offers the chance to explore the group dynamic without the Doc, but also to have a story which itself is about self-perception: and takes the opportunity to employ a little continuity-bending. From the second story, George Watkins, Sarah Sutton and Janet Fielding join the interviews, and Sutton notes how rarely Nyssa gets to do one thing - snap at Tegan.
They’re also joined by Raj Ghatak, Dona Croll, Harley Viveash and Kate Isitt. Isitt, who plays Professor Cott, confesses that she was charmed by the Slitheen! It’s a packed house, and well worth a listen.
Finally, the Thin Time/Madquake music suite showcases the moody atmospherics of Thin Time and the pounding, vibey retro synth soundtrack for Madquake - it’s a brilliant showcase for Robert Harvey, who also discussed how his music complements the themes of the writing.