Big Finish Review: The Paternoster Gang – Heritage 3
Volumes one and two of the Heritage series proved a highly entertaining foray into the world of Vastra, Jenny and Strax. As lady, maid, and butler, they have made their mark on Victorian London and continued to carve out a space in Doctor Who mythology following their half-dozen television appearances.
Heritage volume three expands upon story threads teased in previous instalments. The preceding six self-contained adventures hinted at the Heritage storyline, but it is only in this volume that the characters’ backgrounds becomes the focus of an episode each: Jenny’s background is explored in Family Matters; Vastra investigates her people’s history in Whatever Remains; and Strax encounters two other Sontarans in Truth and Bone.
With music by Joe Kraemer and Matt Fitton as script editor, The Paternoster Gang – Heritage 3 is available from the Big Finish website on general release until 31 July 2020. Read the synopsis below:
Family Matters by Lisa McMullin
Jenny’s past comes calling at Paternoster Row, as Strax takes care of a guest, and the travelling circus comes to town - spelling danger for some of the gang.
But when family matters intrude on their marriage, the last thing Jenny wants is Vastra having her in-laws for dinner...
Whatever Remains by Robert Valentine
The Great Detective’s latest case takes Vastra and friends to the Jurassic coast. A local landowner has vanished. The only clue – the footprints of a gigantic creature!
As Strax suffers the attentions of an amorous landlady, Jenny gains an admirer of her own. And Vastra discovers something buried deep...
Truth and Bone by Roy Gill
Bloomsbury troublemakers Stonn and Tom Foster are back, and in much more trouble than ever before.
Sontar has turned its attention to Earth as Requisitioner Skark looks to retrieve missing soldiers. And Jenny finds Vastra preoccupied with the past, which may lead to a very dark future...
The member of the Paternoster Gang about whom the least is known would have to be Jenny; knowledge about Vastra’s and Strax’s respective species, Silurian and Sontaran, is well established in the Doctor Who canon. Jenny Flint’s family, therefore, is put under the spotlight in Family Matters, although there is ultimately less emotional weight to the storyline than expected due to the overarching plot thread rising to the fore.
Jenny’s frosty reunion with her unscrupulous parents Ma and Pa Scarrity, and the fact that Jenny ran away at a young age, says volumes of how she sees her parents, and gives listeners both an idea of the life she has lived and, therefore, the affection and support she has since found in Vastra’s company. One might think this means Catrin Stewart is given the meatiest material to play with, and although Jenny experience certain emotional beats, it is Neve McIntosh who gets to tackle the moments of most emotion as Vastra rages against the shortcomings of humanity.
That Ma and Pa Scarrity are the owners of a travelling freak show compounds the complexity of the situation, and also reveals a more regrettable feature of the era: a circus with strange creatures and peculiar appearances is all games and laughter on the surface, but conceals a darker exploitative heart. Arguably this blight on humanity’s record is still problematic today.
Lisa McMullin mostly manages to juggle the family dynamics and tensions with numerous supporting characters. But the end result feels a little choppy and could be more concentrated; it would be enough, for instance, to focus on Jenny’s family for an episode without the impending-doom arc coming into play.
Whatever Remains brings a shift in locale (and more than one allusion to Arthur Conan Doyle’s Hounds of the Baskervilles) as the Paternosters travel from crowded London to the expansive Jurassic coast. Such a shift invigorates the series and prevents it from adhering too closely to a rote case-of-the-week formula. This is a formula which, admittedly, does prove entertaining, but this being a New Series Doctor Who property, the demand for narrative variety is considerable.
The team’s investigation into sightings of a sea beast in Dorset and the discovery of an ancient Silurian temple offer the opportunity to explore hitherto-unseen elements of Silurian lore, such as the existence of religious beliefs and an origin myth. We hear more of the gang working together, which is when these stories are the most successful. Events are paced very well, with this episode’s focused plot proving slightly more effective than the opener.
Annette Badland, Robert Fitch and Robert Portal add their voices to an entertaining array of supporting characters. Robert Valentine’s script is also very funny: think Strax’s bottles-of-beer ditty (“Ten wild Rutans surrendered at the beach … and if one vile Rutan…”); a running gag concerning Vastra’s dislike of being equated with her fictional contemporary Sherlock Holmes; Mrs Slinger flirting with Strax; and Strax intimidating the real-life Arthur Conan Doyle and coercing him into killing off the Sherlock Holmes character (as Conan Doyle of course did).
Discrete locales are well-realised in the soundscape: clifftop trails, calls echoing along the coastline, Vastra’s garden in the Paternosters’ dwelling. Valentine’s first released script for Big Finish (to be followed shortly by the recorded-in-lockdown Fourth Doctor story Shadow of the Sun) shows real promise for future releases.
Truth and Bone
After Jenny and Vastra took the lead in the two previous episodes, it is now Strax’s turn to be front and centre. Pairing Strax up with one of his own kind has been long anticipated since his first appearances, and that finally occurs in Truth and Bone.
Two members of the Bloomsbury Bunch, Tom Foster (Arthur Hughes) and Stonn (Sontaran regular Christopher Ryan), are up their usual dodgy business, and a third Sontaran, Requisitioner Skark (another Sontaran regular John Banks), is out to take rogue Sontarans back to be interrogated and re-conscripted. The fusion of ‘new’ and ‘old’ Sontarans at the hands of writer Roy Gill reflects the narrative’s preoccupation with the conflict between present and past.
The reluctant cooperation between Strax and Stonn is the centrepiece of the story. The pair, often prone to petty and humorous squabbling, come to join forces as exiles to evade Skark’s grip and refrain from returning to their past lives. Their conversations that stretch beyond typical Sontaran conditioning to discuss their current, happier lives are the best parts of the episode, and reflect how their new families – the Paternoster Gang and the Bloomsbury Bunch respectively – prove a superior option to repatriation.
Inevitably at this point in the progression of the story arc, things are bigger than they seem: Skark’s plan is has extra layers, and Vastra’s mental premonitions have increased in strength, threatening to bubble over. Indeed, volume three of Heritage ends with more than just an increased foreboding for the future. The final volume will surely bring heady developments.
A fourth disc of interviews accompanies the release, revealing the collective love Neve McIntosh, Dan Starkey and Catrin Stewart hold for the characters they play. This is true even to the extent that elements of their own brainstorming about character backgrounds may have influenced their canonical backstories given in this episode and elsewhere.
As usual, many of the cast share their delight at being able to create audio drama with Big Finish. Annette Badland, who was part of the first ever filming block in 2004, shares both an appreciation for actors in prosthetics and an adoring view of the team behind Doctor Who when it was revived.
Composer Joe Kraemer, who has described his composing and sound designing processes for various other Big Finish projects in recent years, gives further genuinely fascinating insights into the technical process. Josh Arakelian joins him in sharing insider knowledge of creating the mix, the rationale behind adding certain effects and the nitty-gritty of blocking an audio scene. It is, as on previous occasions, marvellous stuff.
The Paternoster Gang are a ragtag bunch of misfits who have been warmly received by audiences. After being thrown together by happenstance – both at a storytelling level and in-narrative in A Good Man Goes to War – their relationship quickly grew to be familial and close. No doubt such was the intention behind their characterisation: to provide a greater depth and humanity than one might expect of such a bizarre trio.
Heritage 3 takes three vividly drawn characters and affords each with extra depth and development. Humour combines with drama in a trio of charming episodes. The narrative gusto is clearest in the middle episode, but the set as a whole is, again, a real delight to listen to. You can’t go wrong with The Paternoster Gang.