Big Finish Review: The Paternoster Gang - Heritage 2
The first part of Heritage was a faithful reintroduction to the Paternoster trio that set the scene for future stories set in Victorian London. Part two develops charactear dynamics further and expands the possibilities of the Victorian setting in three fun, exciting and era-appropriate episodes.
The Paternoster Gang – Heritage 2 is directed by Ken Bentley and produced by David Richardson, and is available exclusively on the Big Finish website until general release on January 1st 2020. Read our recap of part one here, and the synopsis for part two 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…
Dining with Death by Dan Starkey
When negotiations between two warring alien races are sabotaged, Madame Vastra offers Paternoster Row as neutral ground upon which to continue their diplomacy – and to celebrate the treaty with a feast.
While Strax frets about hosting two species with very different dietary needs, Jenny investigates the dissenters who want to halt the peace process.
But a deadly plot is brewing, and the diners may not survive the cheese course...
The Screaming Ceiling by Guy Adams
In one of the earliest cases of his illustrious career, Thomas Carnacki heads to the Highlands to embark upon the terrifying investigation of Castle Kraighten.
On arrival, he finds that another party of sleuths has been engaged – surely these amateurs of Paternoster Row have nothing to teach the great Ghost Finder?
But this is no ordinary haunting. A room in the castle has a mouth in its ceiling. And it screams...
Spring-Heeled Jack by Gemma Arrowsmith
People are being stolen from the streets by a monster. By all accounts, it has burning eyes, breathes blue flames, and can leap the height of a building at a bound.
While Vastra and Jenny fend off an over-eager member of the gutter press, Strax dives into dangerous waters.
Is this Spring-Heeled Jack of legend, returned to terrorise the capital? Or are there more sinister forces at work?
Dining with Death
Treachery spoiling the course of peace negotiations between two sparring alien races in Doctor Who would normally involve serious moral themes and high stakes. In this case, however, a peace conference held in Paternoster Row sees Vastra, Jenny and Strax provide both conflict mediation and a multi-course dinner in order to make peace between the two parties.
Dining with Death is a farce, fully embracing the visual humour and wit of the Paternoster Gang in their evocative Victorian setting, with thoughtful worldbuilding of the two alien races – one resembling foxes, the other walruses. Dan Starkey’s foray into writing for the Paternoster Gang is extremely capable and representative of the protagonists’ characterisation. Starkey’s talent is most evident in terms of witty yet ‘speakable’ dialogue, and not only for Strax.
The trio’s investigatory stylings are at the fore, with each of the story-propelling protagonists having their own storyline. Jenny in particular has her own solo side-quest to the gasworks; these sequences are some of the most evocative for canvassing the plethora of people who populate the cityscape. Vastra’s role as negotiations mediator resonates interestingly with how the history of Silurian-human relations commonly has been characterised more often by inter-species conflict than peaceful cooperation.
Enthusiastic and idiosyncratic performances from Polly Kemp, Glen McCready and Hywel Morgan populate the streets around Paternoster Row, while the dinner table negotiations precipitate a comedy of errors. This opening story incorporates notions of heritage with the respective histories of the two alien races, although the series arc is yet to emerge beyond a partial thematic link about heritage and history in the four episodes of the series so far.
The Screaming Ceiling
Guy Adams delivers a tale of hauntings and ghost finding in The Screaming Ceiling, where the occult and the paranormal occupy centre stage. The humour and brevity, however, are still apparent via expressive characterisation and an ironic disconnect between the narrated and the ‘real’ story.
Adams’ pastiche of Carnacki stories appears faithful to the originals from creator William Hope Hodgson. The story begins in typical Carnacki fashion, with an invitation to friends to attend a dinner to hear a fantastical tale. As Carnacki, Joe Jameson embodies the youthful supernatural investigator and ghost finder, capturing the irony of his blusterous ego as contrasted with more favourable narration around the dinner table of his involvement in the plot.
The narration is therefore appropriate and gives everything an authentic period feel. It also means that when Vastra, Jenny and Strax appear, it is often via Carnacki’s perspective. In many ways, the story is less an episode of The Paternoster Gang with a starring role in Carnacki, and more a story styled in the fashion of one of Carnacki’s narrated adventures in which the Paternoster trio also appear.
By bringing the story out of London and depicting the Scottish Highlands and inhabitants of Castle Kraighten, the story world is expanded and becomes more distinctive for that fact – even if the haunted house trope is highly familiar. The sound design, though, does augment the unsettling ideas at play in the haunted room where the titular “screaming ceiling” resides.
At the end of the day, Guy Adams manages to step up the wit, linguistic verbosity and idiosyncratic character habits of Dining with Death, scripting a strong middle episode that keeps the energy and thrill of the Paternoster Gang’s adventures high.
Gemma Arrowsmith’s final story mines the folklore of the era, exploring more deeply the evocative and atmospheric setting. After a classic pre-credits scene where the monster attacks innocent victims, Spring-Heeled Jack is probably the most straight-forward story of the three in terms of plot: monster appears, Paternosters investigate monster, complications arise as human characters interfere). Still, the characterisation is strong and distinct, the finite cast portraying an array of city inhabitants, and the thematic threads prove meaningful.
Spring-Heeled Jack is little more than a voiceless and faceless monster to begin with, although the imagery of a flame-red eyed, long-leaping creature is highly evocative. Soon, however, the creature is revealed as having an undisclosed emotional backstory; a twist that reveals the monster to actually be a more empathetic creature than originally thought being not an uncommon trope in Doctor Who.
The episode builds the story world primarily by canvassing the city’s diverse populace, from a reporter of dubious morals (who shows glimpses of human decency but is portrayed as mostly apathetic and with eyes only for her story), to police personnel and chimney sweepers. Elizabeth and her fiancé Jimmy provide the pathos of human connection and raise notions of love beyond the boundaries of life and death.
Vastra’s scepticism of folklore stories, Jenny’s healthy distrust of reporters, Strax’s bloodlust and predilection for unnecessary violence – as humorous as it is – goes to show how each team member has their own foibles and prejudices, and thoroughly ‘humanises’ each of them. Spring-Heeled Jack is the third of three very different episodes, making it difficult to choose which is the ‘best’, which will be dependent of individual tastes: farcical, supernatural or emotional.
In addition to a short music suite, interviews on the fourth disc offer a look behind the scenes of the scripting and recording process. Dan Starkey explains his turn at writing lines not only for his character but all others too, and the process of developing the story world. His “actor’s script” is complimented by the supporting cast.
Ideas in this second series go right back to the initial planning meeting between Starkey, McIntosh and Big Finish, including Starkey’s writing of an episode and the inclusion of Spring-Heeled Jack. Guy Adams’ love for Victoriana and the Paternosters is clear, and Starkey exhibits his knowledge of the original Carnacki stories. The entire cast of all three episodes are not shy is disclosing their joy and enthusiasm for working on the series.
Composer Joe Kraemer also appears to explain his launching point for the series theme and the process of developing instrumentation. In covering his career as a film composer and musician (and Anglophile), and how he came to be involved in scoring Big Finish audio dramas (via being in contact with Andrew Cartmel), listeners are given an open, detailed look at the composing process in a way that is rarely offered in behind-the-scenes interviews. His close understanding of Doctor Who scoring and drama is striking.
The distinct personalities of the three leads, the mostly self-contained adventures and the likeable humour of characters make The Paternoster Gang – Heritage a welcome, no-previous-knowledge-required experience for listeners. Those familiar with the trio will no doubt enjoy the faithful and detailed translation from screen to audio, but the breadth afforded to both the setting across the first six episodes of Heritage is giving the series a freshness that would also reward listeners new to the adventures of the Paternoster trio.