Big Finish Review: The Paternoster Gang - Heritage 1
Madame Vastra, Jenny and Strax, known collectively as the Paternoster Gang, have long been identified as ripe for a spin-off series after previously appearing in multiple episodes of Doctor Who alongside the Eleventh and Twelfth Doctors. Now, at last, the time has come.
The Paternoster Gang – Heritage 1 was directed by Ken Bentley and produced by David Richardson, and is available on the Big Finish website prior to general release on 31st August. Read the synopsis below:
Victorian London harbours many secrets: alien visitors, strange phenomena and unearthly powers.
But a trio of investigators stands ready to delve into such mysteries – the Great Detective, Madame Vastra, her resourceful spouse, Jenny Flint, and their loyal valet, Strax.
If an impossible puzzle needs solving, or a grave injustice needs righting, help can be found on Paternoster Row.
But even heroes can never escape their past…
The Cars That Ate London! by Jonathan Morris
The advent of electric carriages on London’s streets causes a stir – until they start careening out of control. Elsewhere, factory workers lose their senses, while a brand-new power plant suffers mysterious outages.
Genius industrialist Fabian Solak has a vision of the future – free from pollution, running on clean electricity. But Madame Vastra knows such ideas are ahead of their time…
A Photograph to Remember by Roy Gill
The Paternoster Gang are shocked to discover a rival group on the streets. A Sontaran, a Silurian and a human – only their intentions are not quite so noble as Madame Vastra and friends.
And when the recently-photographed dead begin to return home, strangely altered, will this ‘Bloomsbury Bunch’ be more of a help or a hindrance?
The Ghosts of Greenwich by Paul Morris
Strange things are happening to the people of Greenwich. Phantoms of the living appear, while others are aged beyond their years. A cloaked figure stalks the streets, and time is out of joint.
Vastra, Jenny and Strax find all clues point towards the Meridian Line. Beneath the Royal Observatory lies a secret – something terribly ancient and horribly dangerous…
Viewers were given their best glimpse into the lives and adventures of the Paternoster Gang in episodes like The Crimson Horror and Deep Breath, and the three audio stories that form the first release in the Heritage series are gratifyingly very much of the same tone as those episodes.
The upbeat, Victorian-themed tune from Joe Kraemer sets the scene immediately, perfectly capturing the tone of whimsy and otherworldly happenings that populate the stories that follow.
The Cars That Ate London!
The series opener features a classic plot setup, with a Scotland Yard inspector calling in help from the private investigator Madame Vastra and her capable assistant Jenny. Jonathan Morris gets to the crux of the tale quickly, and has the character development and worldbuilding occur parallel to the story and action, not separated beforehand or between plot-based scenes. The effect is efficient and pacey New Series-style storytelling.
The Cars That Ate London! is a story befitting of not only the time period, in its exploration of new technologies, but also relevant to current-day environmental concerns about pollution and renewable energy. The atmospheric Victorian setting is fleshed out by enthusiastically wrought era-appropriate accents and the evocative city soundscape of Victoriana.
Neve McIntosh and Catrin Stewart are 100% accurate in their reprisal of their roles and are far from phoning it in as a lizard woman and her wife (as ridiculous as that sounds!). Instead they take care in recreating characters in whom they seem to be highly invested, providing an emotional reality to their performances.
One of the most memorable characteristics of the Paternoster Gang’s presence on-screen was humour, and this series does not disappoint. Although the stories are not all-out comedies, moments such as Strax’s going undercover as a roughly-spoken Cockney factory worker is hilarious, and one can imagine the visual gags and quasi-absurdist performances in the vein of Steven Moffat playing out.
Despite the humorous tone, there are layers to the mystery and each protagonist capably uses their respective talents to the benefit of their investigation (Madame Vastra’s insight and leadership, Jenny’s inquisitive intelligence and combat skills, and Strax’s brute strength and instincts).
Jonathan Morris has written a smart story set in a vividly realised and authentic setting infused with contemporary sensibilities. The episode is very clever (“Rutans peverting the course of Sontaran history!”) and fast-paced, and the performances of the three leads are reliable and energetic, setting the stage extremely well for the succeeding 11 episodes under the Heritage series title.
A Photograph to Remember
Episode two kicks off with a welcome insight into the group’s daily lives, with Strax and Jenny being heard “having fun” on an afternoon off, before heading into supernatural territory. Following on from innovation in the car industry in The Cars That Ate London!, A Photograph to Remember revolves around the technology of photography, although not without a few ghostly apparitions thrown in for good measure. The Victorian setting definitely lends itself to horror, with the walking undead being a classic trope utilised in this story.
Of primary significance here is the introduction of a rival gang on the streets, the Bloomsbury Bunch, who are set to feature as returning characters in the future. In an entertaining twist on the patterning of the Paternoster Gang members, the Sontaran Stonn is the leader (and capitalist entrepreneur), his male love interest is the photographer Tom Foster, and the Silurian Vella has the role of warrior although with less compassion for humans than Vastra.
The meetings between the two groups are a highlight not only for comedic purposes but for developing how these misfits relate to the world around them. Vastra and Vella’s relationship is combative and tense but hides a shared bond as the only two known Silurians awake on the earth. Strax and Stonn share a common heritage as aberrant members of a clone race. One can see them coming into conflict as easily as they might team up to face mutual threats.
It is an interesting setup for future encounters. Their introduction primarily provides an extra thematic dimension to the notion of heritage, and to keep the drama driven by character, like the best drama is.
The Ghosts of Greenwich
Heritage 1 is rounded off with a story with a highly self-explanatory title – ghost sightings in Greenwich are the impetus for the Paternosters’ investigations at the Royal Observatory. Paul Morris, following on from Jonathan Morris and Roy Gill, takes a confident next step to fleshing out the world and characters, particularly by exploring Vastra’s reputation as the Great Detective and Strax’s London connections.
With the set still orienting the audience within the world of the Paternoster Gang, the group’s dynamics are still being explored in this episode. In a fun moment of characterisation, Vastra has a chance to be the educational mother figure to Strax’s rambunctious and hyperactive child as she reinforces the importance of the research phase of an investigation prior to any (forceful) incursion upon a target.
Strax, with an increased role and plot importance, has more to do than provide comic relief but still provides moments of hilarity (including with further attempts at fitting in with the common folk). Jenny might not have as much opportunity at this point to be explored as a character in her own right, but one imagines this will be capitalised upon later in the series.
The villain plot twist brings a welcome extra dimension to the alien threat and prevents the tale from falling into a paint-by-numbers formula. Adding richness to proceedings are the thematic undertones of hierarchy, class and gender inequality, as well allusions to familial heritage, which is another hint at the overarching series theme.
The Gang’s deductive abilities prove that the Doctor was never necessary to solve the problem of the day in Victorian London, and from their perspective he only ever cameoed in their adventures. The first instalment of Heritage therefore becomes a strong foundation for the whole series.
The behind the scenes interviews are top notch, with numerous insights from the main cast about days on set filming the group’s television episodes. Despite their apparent nerves with rediscovering who the characters were and how they sounded, all three actors return with a noticeable motivation.
The collaborative approach and back-and-forth of ideas between Big Finish and the actors during the planning stages of production is pleasant to hear, as is the fact that Dan Starkey should be credited with introducing Strax’s butler outfit into his television appearances! The writers’ approaches to their respective writing processes and how they came about their story ideas are also worth a listen.
Music and sound design by Joe Kraemer enhance the episodes, adding to climactic moments of drama and action, building tension and fleshing out atmosphere. The 15-minute music suite at the end of the release is a pleasing way to finish listening to the set.
The Paternoster Gang return to a likely very warm audience reception, given the authentic way in which these much-loved characters are presented. Writers and actors alike build a world and character dynamics that prove both rewarding to long-term fans and effective as a new series. There is still much to be exploited with the main trio in terms of how they relate to one another and the possibilities of the Victorian setting. Nonetheless, the Paternosters’ familial connection proves highly rewarding in storytelling terms and for listeners, and the first instalment of Heritage is sure to be a hit.