Big Finish Review: Shadow of the Sun
“Whatever dream he’s sold you, it’ll burn up along with you and this ship!”
From the timeless theme music to the iconic team of the Fourth Doctor, Leela and K-9, there’s no indication at all that anything is unusual about the new Big Finish story, Shadow of the Sun. Yet this is the first Doctor Who audio adventure recorded entirely under quarantine - originally scheduled for release in 2024, as with many other Big Finish projects, but now time-travelled to 2020 as a treat for those of us still living in lockdown.
Shadow of the Sun has been written by Robert Valentine and directed by Nicholas Briggs. It is available to purchase at the Big Finish site here and goes on general release on the 30th June 2020. Here's the synopsis...
After an accident, the TARDIS lands on a luxury star-liner. Leaving their ship to repair itself, the Doctor, Leela and K9 find themselves facing a great terror: mingling at a cocktail party.
Something seems awry behind the pleasantries, however. Guests are going missing, and equipment is breaking down. When the Doctor investigates further he discovers that the star-liner is literally on course for disaster.
But no-one seems surprised by this information, still less troubled. What’s going on? And can the Doctor and his friends save everyone... when nobody wants to be saved?
Shadow of the Sun sees the Doctor and Leela landing in the 26th century, on a ship operated by the Gold Star Line (Titanic allusions are always a good omen in science fiction). They find a ship full of sun-worshippers on a deadly mission to fly into the heart of the sun - and it’s their job to halt the ship while finding out which passenger is trying to sabotage their efforts.
We open with Professor Nicely (John Leeson), one of the ship's passengers, attempting to raise the alarm to the unsympathetic and smug AI controlling the ship - the Autopilot. “No emergency at all”, Nicely says, ”apart from the fact that we’re all going to die.” For his trouble, he’s unceremoniously ejected into space. The Doctor, Leela and K-9 arrive moments later, emerging into a high-class space liner.
The Autopilot finds that the Doctor and Leela are not on the passenger list, and deems them stowaways. There’s a great fake-out when we’re led to believe that the ship is about to eject the TARDIS team into space - but instead opens the door to a fancy cocktail reception. Leela, reluctant to get involved, has to be convinced of the concept of canapes and small talk. “That is… mingling”, she says. Louise Jameson still perfectly embodies Leela’s character and her laconic wisdom: of meeting the Doctor, she remarks, “I recognised you as a great and wise man who frequently needs saving from himself.”
The Doctor meets one of the passengers, Lady Malina Rigel-Smythe, who asks for how long he has been an adherent. When the Doctor demurs, she’s surprised. “You haven’t met our leader in person?” We get the sense that she’s an intellectual wanderer, dabbling in Venusian yoga among other pursuits - and using her considerable fortune to charter the ship they’re all voyaging on. Fenella Woolgar, previously seen as Agatha Christie in Doctor Who’s The Unicorn and the Wasp, is fabulous - she could do this kind of role in her sleep.
From there, we meet the leader himself, Doctor Suleiman Zorn (a fabulous name), a quietly sinister academic played by Paul Herzberg. He’s the Professor of Philosophical Physics at the University of Buenos Aires, and the founder of The Helios Society, a group of wealthy intellectuals who believe that Earth’s sun conceals a hidden paradise - Heliotopia - to which they're all headed. Zorn quickly surmises that the Doctor is onboard to sabotage the voyage, and he’s put into a holding cell following the discovery that Nicely is missing. Leela and K-9 then team up and try to free to Doctor while avoiding the hostile Autopilot, who's very keen on sending them on a one-way trip through the airlock.
Writer Robert Valentine nicely ratchets up the tension as the ship approaches its terrible destination. The rising heat causes the ship’s systems to behave unpredictably, but the real threat comes from the people on board, whose inflexibility and fanaticism pushes them towards self-destruction. The whole scenario is a timely metaphor for our age of disinformation and anti-science activism. The belief in a hidden Eden inside the sun doesn’t seem so far fetched in our age of flat earth societies, when 5G masts and Bill Gates are blamed for coronavirus.
The supporting cast are also on top form. Barnaby Edwards, doing double duty as both Officer Hix and the ship’s Autopilot, is great, and Glen McCready as the staunch and selfless Captain Brandis wouldn’t be out of place in a classic Fourth Doctor story.
Shadow of the Sun is a cracking, old-school Doctor Who adventure which grapples with the tension between faith and evidence, and relies on the tragedy of mankind’s hubris - rather than a four-eyed space monster - to generate tension. No mere novelty for the unique nature of its recording, this story is a triumph of creativity and DIY excellence. Shadow is a real treat, and even better for being unwrapped and enjoyed four years ahead of schedule.
Side B of Shadow of the Sun comes with the usual, excellent, cast and crew interviews. Producer David Richardson elaborates on the unusual challenges of recording an entire Doctor Who adventure entirely via Zoom, and Louise Jameson reveals how she transformed part of her house into a fully working home studio. Tom Baker reflects, poignantly, on how the fixed beliefs of the Heliotopians chime with our modern climate of skepticism, when everyday people refuse to believe what they read in the newspapers.
Writer Robert Valentine provides context on how the themes of the story were inspired by the persistent modern belief that opinions can be as valid as facts. Barnaby Edwards, who played Hix and the Autopilot, remarks that the scenario of a ship crashing into the sun somehow feels more calming than our real-life circumstances; the value of fiction and escape, at a time of crisis, seems undeniable.