Big Finish Review: The Lone Centurion Volume 01
Ever wondered what happened to Auton Rory Williams in the centuries between 102AD and 2010AD? Well, thanks to Big Finish, we are now going to find out just what he went through in Doctor Who adventure The Big Bang, with The Lone Centurion, starring Arthur Darvill.
The Lone Centurion Volume 01 has been written by David Llewellyn, Sarah Ward and Jacqueline Rayner and is directed by Scott Handcock. It is available to purchase exclusively at the Big Finish site here, before going on general release on the 30th June 2021. Here's the synopsis...
Legend tells of the Lone Centurion - a mysterious figure dressed as a Roman soldier who stood guard over the Pandorica, warning off those who would attempt to open it; a constant warrior whose story appeared in the folk history of a dozen civilisations.
Only... he seems to have misplaced it.
Travelling to Rome in search of the Pandorica, Rory finds himself forced to perform as a gladiator in the Colosseum... where he attracts the attention of the Imperial household.
1.1 Gladiator by David Llewellyn
Kidnapped, Rory is taken to Rome and thrown into the arena, where his hapless inability to die brings him to the attention of the Emperor.
1.2 The Unwilling Assassin by Sarah Ward
The Roman Empire has a new official assassin. Lethal, cunning, and utterly unsuited to the job. Can Rory Williams succeed at assassination without actually killing anyone?
1.3 I, Rorius by Jacqueline Rayner
Drowning in a sea of plots and conspiracies, Rory just wants his life back. But in Ancient Rome, people don't retire, they die. And that's a bit difficult when you're immortal.
I'll be joined by regular my regular co-reviewer and huge Rory Williams (and Doctor Who) fan, my 15-year old son Ben, to discuss this exciting new release...
Minor spoilers contained within...
"I came here to kick butt and chew gum. And guess what, I'm all out of gum...you'd probably appreciate that more if you knew what chewing gum was..."
Gladiator does an excellent job of setting up the stakes of the story; Rory has lost the Pandorica and followed it to Rome, where he is now an immortal gladiator, forced to fight for the masses. Of course, this is much more than just a simple tale of Auton Rory and his amazing immortal abilities; soon, Rory finds himself embroiled in political machinations and intrigue involving the Caesar ( Joseph Tweedale) and his cunning wife Augusta (Joanna Van Kampen). There are certainly a few familiar nods to the Ridley Scott epic with the same name and the story is all the better for it.
There is a certain amount of danger and uncertainty to keep Rory - and the audience - on their toes, though the real strength is in Rory's fish out of water story as he goes from gladiator to bodyguard. David Llewellyn's script shines when Rory throws in oddball references to his own time; his mum's observations on olives, a trip to see the Krankees as a child, there are plenty of delightful moments when Arthur Darvill excels in the awkward banter of series five Rory. He doesn't quite have the confidence we saw from Rory when he became a full time companion in Doctor Who series six, but already there is a sense that the events taking place in Rome are shaping him.
Gladiator is played with a knowing wink to the audience at all times; it knows it is a little bit silly and Rory is a modern 21st century outsider suddenly caught up in history itself (his constant references to being in 'Ancient Rome' are a delight). Without a decent supporting cast, Gladiator would be merely fun. But fortunately, the story has a lot more going for it than Rory's predicament. Joseph Tweedale's Caesar is a riot; he's constantly unsure of his own grandiosity and utterly clueless to just how sharp his wife's observations - and ambitions - are. His attempts to stage a grand play to celebrate his ascension to the throne are hilarious; from his 'physical theatre' rehearsals with stable boy Lepidus to a terribly cringeworthy recreation of Agamemnon (it's Greek tragedy with a big musical number).
Joanna Van Kampen is a real tour de force as Augusta, the woman wedded to the most powerful man in Rome, and who immediately sets her sights on Rory. Gladiator does a terrific job of making her true agenda hidden; certainly her goals are hinted at, making some of the final twists in the story welcome but not unexpected, but she has charm, wit and passion aplenty, that carries through into the next story on the set. Normally impersonating the Doctor himself, Jacob Dudman delivers a quieter performance as Caesar's very un-secret lover, who's true agenda offers plenty of twists and laughs going into the end of the story. Finally, Inès de Clercq's Marcella is the heart of the story; like Augusta, she is a clever woman in a society of men who foolishly believe they are cleverer than her. Marcella's connection to Rory gives a great central friendship that adds some momentum - and more laughs - when things take a turn for the worse.
Gladiator is a historical farce meets political thriller meets fish out of water story, and the perfect way to reintroduce Rory, the Lone Centurion, to Big Finish...
The Matt Smith era of Doctor Who has always been my favourite. I love the Doctor, the stories and the companions. So it's always been a slight annoyance that it hasn't reached into the full scope of Big Finish yet, with just a few short trips and an impressionist box set here or there. Naturally, O was very excited by the announcement of The Lone Centurion.
Rory's very underrated in the long line of companions. A lot of the time played off as the tin dog or The-One-Who-Always-dies, but he's so much more. So it's very pleasing this set gives him a chance to shine. Set in his Auton, guarding the Pandorica (and consequently Amy) phase, Gladiator is a riot. Very out of his depth (and time, dropping 21st century references regularly much to the confusion of the Romans) but determined, Rory treads softly across the story trying not to end up in sticky situations while searching for the misplaced Pandorica (Which I must admit, isn't a very good move as Amy's fiancée) and adds layers of comedic value to the proceedings.
The guest cast are on top form, in this lighter, fluffier version of Ancient Rome, with Augusta, Marcella and Caesar acting as noteworthy, memorable side characters. Caesar is portrayed as a slightly useless, easy-going emperor which certainly fits the tone the story is going for, while Augusta plays Devils advocate scheming and plotting throughout and drawing Rory into the unfortunate web. Marcella feels very real in her predicament and is practically Rory's companion throughout and you feel for her and wish her well.
Rory is portrayed just as fabulously as on TV, and without the influence of the Doctor or Amy he's allowed to come into his own a little bit more, having to rely on his own wit to help him. His comedy is ripe, from the Chewing Gum line to his annoyed realisation that of course poison wouldn't affect an Auton, and just makes for a fun time. A noteworthy element is the final twist of the hour, which leans into the aspect of the dying universe earlier than expected, showing how since this timeline is ultimately aborted by the Doctor in The Big Bang, anything goes...
The Unwilling Assassin
The farcical nature of The Lone Centurion is amped up to ten in the second story, which sees Rory now the unwitting personal assassin to vengeful Empress Augusta. Her ambitions fulfilled, Joanna Van Kampen has real fun in this story, sending out Rory to dispose of her enemies one by one. The idea of Rory as an assassin is, of course, farcical in itself and that's where writer Sarah Ward drives the humour of the script, delivered to awkward perfection by Darvill himself. It helps that he also has a new enemy in Robyn Holdaway's chief spy Decima, who is quick to deduce that Rory isn't quite up to the task. Hearing Rory navigating the manipulations of Augusta and Decima adds some real tension to the story.
The 'gruesome deaths' are anything but and there are plenty of laugh out loud moments. Rory trying to convince his intended victims that he is there to save them - and getting no thanks is return - is very funny. You feel Rory's exasperation at the mild inconvenience they show him. The dramatic 'death' of the former Caesar's mistress Locusta (a delightfully OTT performance from Ayesha Antoine) is delightfully funny, as is Rory's attempts to herd Roman poet and prophet Tacitus to safety. Terry Molloy has a brief but memorable scene in the first story, but he really shines here as the all knowing, deliriously vague prophet. Adding to the dynamic Augusta's ruthless brother in law Felix (Rhys Jennings) and a very awkward wrestling match and Rory's suffering is complete.
The rich world of ancient Rome is more vivid than ever in this story and it's nice to see the alternate Earth storyline (complete with a reference to no stars) is nicely played. It's a subtle change of events - after all, Earth doesn't look that different in The Big Bang, but there can be backstabbing and murder galore without the need to stick strictly to Roman history.
While Ward's script has plenty of awkward and silly humour, there's also a very effective pay off involving figs that brings everything to a head without every feeling contrived. Ward lays plenty of breadcrumbs throughout the story, only to use them in clever and unexpected ways an deliver a very surprising - and fun - ending. Darvill is poor put upon Rory at his very best; thanks to a great script and vivid direction by Scott Handcock, you feel every desperate moment, right up to that final dark and delicious twist.
The nature of The Lone Centurion leads to all sorts of scenarios that can unfold, in any shape or form. So sticking the un-killable Rory into the role of an assassin who won't kill anyone (The Undeadly Assassin if you will) is a brilliant starting point. It reminds me of 2018's Kingdom of Lies which put the Fifth Doctor in a similar scenario but here it's played purely for comedic effect which is a tone that this story and the set as a whole shamelessly indulges in.
Once more, Arthur Darvill gets to have so much fun playing Rory again, and there's very much a sense he loves the character and these scripts. Rory's turbulent navigation of the story goes from awkward lying, humour and exasperation all within one hour. His attempts to convince his 'victims' he's not going to horribly murder them and upon their agreement, their complete OTT fake death scenes are wonderful while Rory's exasperated disdain for no-one thanking him or ultimately listening to his attempts to get them out of Rome couples with it beautifully. Indeed, due to his morals and secret methods of trying to fool Augusta, the whole story is a slow ticking time bomb for Rory.
Augusta gives an even better performance here, getting to play full power-mad empress, sending Rory to slaughter all her enemies while being wary of his supposed completion throughout. Intertwined with her interactions with Decima that add a layer of suspense for the listener, wary Rory's time is running out. Indeed, Decima is the true villain of the piece, spying on Rory and completing what he failed to achieve while not always happy with her mistress's orders. Meanwhile Tacitus is a wonderful and befuddled presence, with his smug attitude towards Augusta, the predictions he spouts and his eventual taking towards Rory.
There are small moments throughout that just elevate the script, such as Felix's head supposedly being used as a football, the way Rory fumbles around his tasks and the blink (or whatever the audio equivalent would be) and you'll miss it reference to the destruction of all the stars due to the exploding TARDIS. The clever full circle use of the figs at the stories conclusion adds even more, while the story itself ends on a ridiculous cliff-hanger that sticks Rory in a spot I think he'd rather avoid...
The final story sees Rory navigate the challenges of becoming the Emperor of Rome; it's a solidly entertaining final script from Jacqueline Rayner that balances deeper drama against the humour. It's not quite as funny as the previous two - farce replaced with subtler humour, but Darvill navigates Rory's new situation with aplomb and there are still some funny moments; the constant trumpeting to announce every movement Rory makes and the various dishes by Omar Baroud's Quinn ensure that the narrative never goes too dark.
You get a greater sense of Rory's emotional state in this story; the moments where he can finally escape and converse with the statue of his house goddess Amelia, draws The Lone Centurion back to his plight to save his wife and that deep love for Amy Pond resonates throughout the story. This is balanced with his friendship with slave Anna (Samantha Béart); there is a great connection between the two that is at the heart of I Rorius.
The villains of the piece are again more subtle than the likes of Augusta and Decima. Mina Anwar plays the observant Juliana, widow of Felix, who is keen to get her hooks into Rory, while the military ambitions of Max Hutchinson's Marinus quickly threaten to end Rory's short reign as emperor. The story certainly takes some darker paths where they are concerned, particularly when concerned with Rory's own true ally Anna.
I Rorius is a satisfying end to Rory's arc in Rome, promising more to come (volume two of The Lone Centurion will arrive next year), while offering an emotional meditation of Rory's state of mind at this point in his very long life. It replaces bold humour for emotional heft, giving volume one some narrative depth that it may otherwise have been missing.
Over the course of three stories, Rory rises up the ranks of Roman power culminating in becoming the emperor, which is a spot he's very unsuited to being in. You have to feel for Rory throughout due to his exasperation and struggles he faces, only at the start of his 2000 year journey. Indeed, the core of this story is how Rory copes with everything, with a shrine built for Amy and a new friend in Anna in which he can confide and find someone who can help him.
While the humour is toned down in this final instalment, it works in its favour resulting in a quieter character piece able to examine just how Rory is dealing with everything. While his annoyance at armed guards following him everywhere and the fanfares playing every time he enters the room is a big part of that, there's also the matter of how he's going to get through the 2000 year wait for Amy in the Pandorica. A notable part of this story is how Rory is having a one sided conversation with the statue of Amy and his feelings of loss towards her which drives the story forward.
Of course, comedy is still a big element as with the rest of the set, from the title itself to the naming of the ducks (leading to Doc the Ducktor), Quinn, the chef who won't stop following Rory and his description of a man who likes a ferrety Justin Bieber along with other 21st century references. Reminiscent of The Myth Makers (And indeed a lot of history), it takes a darker towards the end, pushing Rory to his limits as he's blackmailed into being the strong emperor General Marinus wants him to be leading to deaths all around. It's a nice touch, Rory deploying his nursing skills and the raw loss he feels at Quinn (and almost Anna) is very real yet he deals with everything without resorting to violence as a true hero does.
A word must be said for the sound design here, with beautiful music tracks interlaced throughout the plot adding tension and emotion where is needed propelling the story even further. Anna as a character acts as another companion, an identity figure not just for us but Rory who's very much in need of it leading to a heartfelt resolution as The Lone Centurion departs Rome to guard the Pandorica elsewhere.
The behind the scenes interviews between Scott Handcock and the cast of Gladiator round off the first disk, starting with an exploration of Arthur Darvill's Big Finish journey and the appeal of playing in audio - from Frankenstein to The League of Gentlemen. He also feels that enough time has passed since playing Rory that he was easily convinced to return to the character. He is full of enthusiasm for the character and the joy of exploring Rory's humour in these new stories.
Joseph Tweedale and Joanna Van Kampen talk the Monty Python-esque humour of the Roman romp that feels unlike Doctor Who, working together for the first time and, as with many recent Big Finish releases, the interesting nature of recording in lockdown. Darvill and Inès de Clercq delve into the connection between Rory and Marcella, his first real relationship since he began the long wait for his wife in the Pandorica. Jacob Dudman also has fun playing 'devious eunuch' Lepidus, that is a far cry from the usual heroic characters he plays for Big Finish.
Disk two features more discussion between Scott Handcock and the cast as they discuss the joys of remote working. Darvill provides the 'cover art' for the story in his duvet fort, Terry Molloy enjoys the tea breaks and Robyn Holdaway finds herself told off by her wife for building a pillow fort in her office! In the discussion of The Unwilling Assassin, Joanna Van Kampen delights in the tension as Augusta become more power crazed, while Darvill delves into Rory's desperation to stick to the plan as everything unravels around him and how writer Sarah Ward still manages to capture his good nature in a backstabbing, dangerous world. Robyn Holdaway talks the challenge of trying not to make Decima a stereotype, while playing a character with a complete lack of models.
The third disk features a trailer for next year's The Lone Centurion Vol 2 and a trip to Camelot. Finally, the behind the scenes interviews have Handcock chat with the cast of I Rorius on the final day of recording, with Darvill reflecting on how much fun it was to return to the character of Rory and the change from outsider to companion at this point in Doctor Who, while Big Finish stalwarts Samantha Béart, Mina Anwar and reflect on performing something a little less harrowing than their usual fare. A final reflection from Davrill on where Rory goes next rounds off this latest entertaining discussion, ahead of his return in 2022.
Some Final Thoughts...
Arthur Darvill's Rory is one of modern Doctor Who's most underrated companions and it's great to see him in the spotlight across these three adventures. The farcical nature of the first two stories, and the emotional desperation of third, all play to Darvill's strengths. Backed by an impressive cast of characters, witting scripts and sharp direction, it is also one of the most entertaining releases Big Finish have done. There's always a wariness in developing spin-offs of the main Doctor Who range- will they work without the Doctor? It's releases like The Lone Centurion that prove they absolutely can.
I mentioned before how I love this era of Doctor Who so it's wonderful to see a faithful portrayal of Rory throughout. Arthur Darvill gives it his all and I truly hope we see more of him in future (The Eleventh Doctor Adventures perhaps...?). Overall this set is something new, and very much needed and a breath of fresh air. It was described in Doctor Who Magazine as 'The spin-off we all need right now' and that sentiment is echoed throughout each of the three tales with the light hearted tone and escapism that is greatly appreciated due to real life recent events. I've been looking forward to this for almost a year and it most certainly didn't disappoint.