Big Finish Review: Doctor Who - Wicked Sisters
November brings back pan-dimensional beings Abby (Ciara Janson) and Zara (Laura Doddington) from their 2010-2017 Big Finish adventures Graceless. With the Fifth Doctor (Peter Davison) recruited by Leela (Louise Jameson) for a vital mission on behalf of the Time Lords to stop them, Wicked Sisters follows three inter-linked adventures featuring the sisters, the Doctor and the former Doctor Who companion.
Doctor Who: Wicked Sisters has been written by Simon Guerrier and directed by Lisa Bowerman. It is available exclusively at the Big Finish site here, before going on general release on the 31st December. Here are the synopses...
The Doctor is recruited by Leela for a vital mission on behalf of the Time Lords.
Together, they must track down and destroy two god-like beings whose extraordinary powers now threaten all of space and time. These beings are already known to the Doctor.
Their names are Abby and Zara...
1. The Garden of Storms
In pursuit of Abby and Zara, Leela pilots the TARDIS to the eye of a violent storm in time. Yet she and the Doctor find themselves in an idyllic garden city, the people contented and happy. They soon discover that this bliss comes at a terrible cost, and that Abby and Zara are determined to put things right… so how can Leela and the Doctor stop them?
2. The Moonrakers
Life is hard for the early pioneers building the first settlements on the Moon. The laws of Earth don’t apply here, and there are tussles over limited resources vital to survival. Arriving on the Moon, the Doctor and Zara discover that an aggressive alien species lies in wait. Yet there’s something very strange about these particular Sontarans: they refuse to fight.
3. The People Made of Smoke
Abby and Zara strive to use their powers for good but it’s clear they are damaging reality - and allowing monstrous creatures to bleed through from beyond. The Doctor knows he can only save the universe by destroying his friends. But just how much might he be willing to sacrifice if there’s a chance to save them?
The Garden of Storms
There are two big concepts at play in The Garden of Storms; the Doctor's mission to stop omnipotent sisters Zara and Abby from destroying time and space itself and the moral drama of the setting - a planet where anyone reaching the age of forty is sacrificed for the greater good.
I have not comes across the Graceless series before, but fortunately there is enough of an introduction to Zara and Abby and their past connection to the Doctor, that there is no danger of missing anything. Needless to say, they are not necessarily the destructive beings the Time Lords believe them to be, while not completely innocent either. One of the strongest elements of the entire Wicked Sisters set is how it questions the idea of good and evil, black and white.
It's particularly notable that this story then features Louise Jameson's Leela, perhaps one of the most black and white thinking characters the Doctor ever travelled with. Leela has spent time with other Doctors beyond the Fourth before; indeed she was a big player in the superb Fifth Doctor release Time in Office a couple of years ago. Davison's softer Doctor has a very different relationship with Leela than Tom Baker's domineering Fourth, that is explored nicely in this story.
The horror at the heart of the society presented in this story is another interesting element; the idea of sacrificing anyone before their time is abhorrent, but there's a fascinating debate here around population control and the good of society that plays its role, even if you as a the listener could never agree with it. Again, the presence of Leela is interesting; she is not the young female warrior of the televised era, but an older, mature companion at odds with the society around her.
The Garden of Storms has plenty of interesting ideas. While Davison and Jameson are great, I found Ciara Janson and Laura Doddington's as the two 'wicked sisters' merely fine. There was nothing particularly bad about the performances; I just didn't find them particularly noteworthy either, outside the concept of their powers.
Sontarans on the Moon? It's a terrific concept and makes for a very entertaining entry in the set, my favourite of the three tales thanks in no small part to Dan Starkey's performance as Sontaran clone trooper Stent. A Sonataran that debates military interrogations over a cup of tea and debates the ascetics of fine art is always going win me over.
Davison bounces off Starkey's Sontaran well; his frustrations and apparent manipulation give the Doctor plenty to ponder and Doddington gets a bit more to get her teeth into as his companion in this story. On the flip side we have Leela and Abby forming their own duo as they encounter Anjli Mohindra's weary Captain Riya Nehru and a rag tag band of humans dealing with the Sontaran presence on the moon. Jameson and Janson also bounce off each other; it seems the two sisters are better separated than together.
Once again, there's a solid moral debate at the heart of the story and this time it's the futility of war. Stent is a Sonataran that seems more willing to look at the pros and cons of warfare, a very different Sonataran in the same manner as his most famous role Strax. There is an intelligence to his scientific experiment of human behaviour and when facing off against the Doctor, provides the real creative meat to The Moonrakers.
There are some interesting late story twists concerning Abby and Zara, particularly when it impacts on the events that have unfolded across The Garden of Storms and The Moonrakers. It certainly provides a solid hook for the final story, with the Doctor and Leela finally united to stop them, whatever it takes.
The People Made of Smoke
The cliffhanger to The Moonrakers turn everything on its head, reshaping the events of The Garden of Storms and tying back to the intriguing entity that emerged at the end of the first story. Once again, there's a morally-driven hook; can changing history for the better ever come without consequences? It seems the answer in The People Made of Smoke is no.
The smoke creatures that haunt the population of the moon are suitably menacing, taking the lives of those who would have faced death anyway in another time line. Throughout the first half of the story, the sense of dread as the doctor- and the audience - realise what is happening, builds towards the dramatic climax as death and destruction overtakes everyone in a screaming frenzy.
It is certainly the most epic of the three stories, delivering everything on a grand scale that perhaps only audio drama can provide; you certainly would a less ambitious tale to emerge had this been broadcast in the 80s. The stakes are high and there's a tragic twist surrounding the Doctor at the eleventh hour that leaves the listener puzzled by the how The People Made of Smoke will resolve itself.
Abby and Zara remain interesting characters. They are not inherently evil, but even three stories in, I still struggled to get a sense of what their motivations were. There is a satisfying conclusion to their story, one that allows both the Doctor and the sisters to play the hero, but the whole 'threat to time itself' angle is never truly delivered upon.
The People Made of Smoke is an enjoyable tale with an intriguing mystery and grand, menacing creation in the smoke monsters. Despite the epic events unfolding, there is plenty for all four main cast members to get their teeth into. While it doesn't deliver on the threat to time itself that compels the Doctor and Leela into this adventure, it does at least offer a satisfying conclusion to the moon-based narrative of the three stories presented.
It's a shame we don't get any of the music score from composer Howard Carter as there are some terrific melodic musical sequences running throughout Wicked Sisters. There are, however, 50 minutes of behind the scenes interviews with the cast and crew, split across the three disks, which give a detailed and often fascinating insight into the creation of the three stories.
Writer Simon Guerrier and producer Mark Wright talks about the then-Amy and Zara, who debuted as the Fifth Doctor's companions in The Key 2 Time and the hint at a reunion with the Doctor at the end of the Graceless range. Wicked Sisters took two years to form, bringing everything full circle ten years after their original encounters. Peter Davison talks the joy of having new companions in Big Finish stories, while Wright elates in the joyful performance of the Fifth Doctor, his Doctor when he began watching Doctor Who.
Janson and Doddington talk about the growth and maturity of Abby and Zara, reflecting in their own relationship with each other, appreciating how Guerrier brings their own traits - particularly their sarcasm - into the scripts. Louise Jameson delves into the evolution of character, an older, more experienced Leela and not having to keep up the young 20's voice in her performance! There's also a nice reflection on the story of The Garden of Storms from Jameson and guest actress Pandora Clifford on getting older and the grim nature of reaching 40 - and beyond - reflected in the story.
Wright, Guerrier and director Lisa Bowerman continues the discussions on The Moonrakers, delving into the the morality ambiguity and law of unintended consequences within the story and how Abby and Zara's perspectives clash with the world around them. Particularly interesting is Guerrier's insights into how Abby, Zara and Leela have matured following their experiences travelling with the Doctor. Dan Starkey - the definitive Sontaran of recent years - compares how Stent, like Strax, is different to the rest of his people and enjoys the character's study of human behaviour.
Finally, we have the behind the scenes interviews for The People Made of Smoke. Wright delves into how Abby and Zara's action have changed the society presented over the previous two stories, while Bowerman delights in the moral drama of how the Doctor will deal with the sisters and the surprise of the mini-regeneration in the tale. Jameson delights in Leela becoming the grown-up, moving beyond her Eliza Doolittle persona, while reflecting on working with Davison outside their work together at Big Finish. Once again, there are plenty of insightful discussions from everyone involved and the moral complexity of Guerrier's script.
Some Final Thoughts...
Doctor Who: Wicked Sisters is an enjoyable set from Big Finish, which delivers the usual high standard of production and storytelling. It works without prior knowledge of the Graceless range on which Abby (Ciara Janson) and Zara (Laura Doddington) are based and there are some real highlights here, most notably the Sontaran story The Moonrakers, which is the most fun of the three releases, the delightful mix of the Fifth Doctor and Leela and some compelling moral dilemmas in the scripts from Simon Guerrier.
My struggle was not with the performances by Janson and Doddington as the two 'wicked sisters', but in the characters of Abby and Zara themselves. While it might have perhaps been the point to make them seem ordinary, I struggled to understand their motivations or get a satisfying pay-off to the time-ending threat they supposedly brought. Still, all three stories in Wicked Sisters offer something entertaining and thought-provoking for the listener and there's a strong through-line across the three stories. Fans of Graceless will probably be high satisfied. As a Doctor Who fan, I was pleasantly entertained.