Big Finish Review: Donna Noble - Kidnapped!

Big Finish Review: Donna Noble - Kidnapped!

After two trilogies of audios alongside the Tenth Doctor, Donna Noble gets her own Big Finish solo series, in the vein of other New Series companions River Song, Rose Tyler, Lady Christina and Jenny. Catherine Tate, Jacqueline King and Niky Wardley star in a wild yet touching four-part series.

Donna Noble – Kidnapped! is directed by Barnaby Edwards with music and sound design by Howard Carter, and is available for purchase from the Big Finish website. The synopsis follows:

Donna Noble has come home. But she’s about to be whisked away by aliens – and they’re not as friendly as the Doctor!

After the trauma of the Library, Donna wants a break, to see old friends and family, to remind herself of normality.

Only Donna’s new normal involves trips through time and space and visiting alien worlds. So when she and BFF Nat start looking into strange abductions, they are dragged into a whole new universe of trouble...

Out of this World by Jacqueline Rayner

Donna’s home, but she’s not quite herself. Sylvia has some ideas to bring her out of herself – involving an old friend, and speed-dating...

As schoolgirl BFFs Donna and Natalie get reacquainted, a mysterious stranger dogs their steps. Is the Doctor keeping tabs on her, or is the truth far more sinister?

Spinvasion by John Dorney

Donna and Nat have been stolen – along with the TARDIS - and they find themselves crash-landing on an alien world.

On the planet Valdacki a very successful invasion is already underway. And it’s one that has the very best PR.

The Sorcerer of Albion by James Goss

Trying to get home, Donna and Nat end up in the right place at the wrong time – the Middle Ages!

A monastery is under siege from the Burning Knights, and the great Sorcerer Parval calls on the assistance of another great mage. He has summoned Merlin herself – or as Nat knows her, Donna Noble!

The Chiswick Cuckoos by Matt Fitton

Donna’s home, but she’s not quite herself. Sylvia couldn’t be more pleased to see her daughter finally getting on with her life.

But an alien plot is nearing completion, and the world needs saving. The Doctor is nowhere to be found, so it’s all up to Donna – and Nat!

Review

Out of this World

The tone of episode one is grounded, suburban, human and real – everything Donna brought to series 4 of the television series – which makes this a fun and flippant, yet surprisingly sensitive, opener. Out of this World stays pleasingly grounded, with the awkwardness of speed dating and some touching moments between mother and daughter balancing out the extra-terrestrial plot elements.

The best parts of the episode are where Donna shows a sparkling rapport with best friend Nat and gets real with her mother Sylvia. Her relationships with these characters are key to keeping things grounded. It quickly becomes apparent the series as a whole is built around the core friendship between Donna and Nat, who stick together through everything thrown at them.

Jacqueline Raynor delves into the repercussions of what both Donna and Sylvia have been through across the course of knowing the Doctor. Sylvia’s grief over the still-recent loss of her husband, and Donna’s traumatic experience in the Library and the loss of her own quasi-husband, are both addressed with sensitivity. We all know someone like Donna’s nagging mum Sylvia: always pestering her daughter to do or not do something, but at the end of the day simply trying to show she cares.

Ultimately this is a very small-scale and intimate story that serves as a welcome reintroduction to Donna and Sylvia and fleshes out their domestic world, putting Donna centre stage with a reliant counterpart in the form of Nat. The episode also goes to show, yet again, how unlucky Donna is in love.

Spinvasion

As the title suggests, the second episode is a sharply satirical take on corporate marketing, PR and spin. The invasion of a planet – and the associated consequences of enforced labour and censorship – is being offered to the planet’s populace as somehow beneficial for them; chillingly, such a notion is actually almost believable in reality.

Donna and Nat bungle their attempt to steer the TARDIS to land on the planet Valdacki, where the pair is split apart and allowed to shine in their own unique ways. John Dorney does not shy away from criticising the extreme – yet chillingly realistic – setup into which Donna and Nat are thrown.

The story is intentionally unsubtle but nonetheless clever at presenting a series of increasingly ludicrous PR scenarios. It leans heavily into corporate dominance based on extreme capitalist ideals (“you don’t get something for nothing in this world”), to the extent that the population has been fooled into thinking their situation is better for them than freedom, individuality and personal choice.

The farcical script features a supporting cast – including Phil Cornwell, Timothy Bentinck, Nisha Nayar and Dan Starkey – who give very enthusiastic performances and fill in a variety of quirky bit parts. A notable example of this is a collection of ruthless corporate types sitting round a conference table debating ideas about how to market the mass murder of half the population – what a delightful notion uncomfortably close to reality (“They think like businessmen. They’re not good with common sense.”)

The Sorcerer of Albion

Episode three sees Donna take on more typical Doctor-ish qualities, bringing her “companion” along on an (albeit unintentional) trip to the Middle Ages. The pseudo-historical story, in following on from a contemporary-set tale and a trip to a different planet, is fully in the vein of the New Series.

The Sorcerer of Albion plays into many tropes of the era. The Donna is confused for Merlin and quickly imprisoned in a monastery’s dungeon. The aging wizard Parval (David Schofield) and his strong-willed granddaughter Vivien (Lydia West) combat the threat posed by a collection of malevolent Burning Knights. And there is a twist involving Vivien, who is revealed to secretly be the true wielder of power in the monastery, not the egotistical Parval; this gives pleasing extra depth to an otherwise one-note supporting character.

Sebastian Armesto cameos as Nat’s husband Garrison (prior to a larger appearance in the following story); their interplay is a highlight, and reinforces the notion of well-drawn characters being in conflict with each other as the core foundation of good drama. More than anything else, The Sorcerer of Albion is an opportunity for Nat to shine; she has a flippant wit and knack for improvisation that rival Donna’s own.

There are some clever parallels between the Donna and Nat pairing with the Doctor and a companion, and between the Doctor and Merlin (as an almighty wizard who takes many forms to convey his formidable legend and power – “So why can’t one be a woman?”). James Goss’s script is clever and layered, and one’s understanding of the subtleties is enhanced by listening to the behind-the-scenes interviews.

The Chiswick Cuckoos

The Chiswick Cuckoos is a shorter fifty-minute episode to round off Donna’s first solo set, but it is still packed with body-snatching aliens, a Donna duplicate and an attempt to supplant the whole of humanity in full swing. No, it isn’t Autons, but suffice to say that a “better” version of Donna has been living at home in her absence, leaving Sylvia infinitely pleased with this new highly accomplished version of her daughter.

This is the climax of the set, and that means multiple returning characters, including an appearance from David Tennant as the Doctor. Sylvia is back, as is Nat’s husband Garrison and Isla Blair as Marge. Nat (and Niky Wardley) is still great, and the episode also features a cameo from James Joyce as Josh Carter from Big Finish’s UNIT series, to whom of course Donna takes a liking. This is a nice linking of continuity between Tenth Doctor-era UNIT and the UNIT of the 2010s with the Eleventh and Twelfth Doctors.

Kidnapped! keeps the almost-obligatory cameo from the Doctor (hinted at heavily in the first episode) until the end, and a return from such a fan-favourite incarnation could only be done with great triumph and excitement. After dipping in at points throughout, he appears properly to reunite with Donna at the end, and the reunion is sure to bring a smile to listeners’ faces.

The Chiswick Cuckoos is a great series finale episode with a fantastic collection of key characters, capturing Donna’s intuition and wit, the tangible rapport with Nat, and the snarky domesticity of both their lives.

Extras

In addition to an eight-minute suite of music from Howard Carter, a fifth disc full of interviews with the cast and clips from recording days is included with this release. Many laughs are to be had as Catherine Tate expresses her joy for playing Donna again, working on audio and collaborating with Niky Wardley.

Director Barnaby Edwards has only good things to say about the talent of the cast he has assembled and the pleasure of observing the real-life rapport between Tate and Wardley transfer across into scenes. Phil Cornwell in particular is praised for his comedy chops in Spinvasion. The variable vocal qualities of Dan Starkey and Tim Bentinck, too, are lauded.

James Goss reveals the influences behind writing The Sorcerer of Albion and the hidden allusions to the First Doctor and his granddaughter Susan. He also explains a huge secret continuity reference he took great delight in including in his episode and has high praise for the characterisation of Donna. Listeners also bear witness to composer Howard Carter’s thoughts on the Doctor’s triumphant return at the end of the fourth story.

Conclusion

The tone of each Big Finish spin-off series in recent years has often matched the key qualities of its protagonist: Missy was crazy and self-aware, The Dimension Cannon was tragic and a little dark befitting Rose Tyler’s tragic ending, and Lady Christina was a spy/heist feel. A solo series for Donna could only be what Kidnapped! is: upbeat, fun and reliant on a snarky yet endearing trio of core characters.

Catherine Tate is utterly delightful, and the inclusion of Jacqueline King and Niky Wardley is a huge boon for the four episodes. The series is boosted by the infectious and complementary relationship between Tate and Wardley as it bleeds though into the pairing of Donna and Nat – look no further than the cast interviews for proof of this. Kidnapped! is a lot of fun with a surprising wealth of tender and touching moments between well-drawn and well-acted characters.

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