Big Finish Review: Doctor Who - Time Apart
The latest monthly Big Finish release, Time Apart, brings us a quartet of short, earthbound adventures for the good Doctor (Peter Davison), taking us down some well-trodden Doctor Who paths. But these four stories stand out for their emotion, escapism, and sheer quality, and may be a perfect antidote for listeners who have found their attention span - but not their wanderlust - dimmed by lockdown.
Time Apart has been written by Jacqueline Rayner, Kate Thorman, Tommy Donbavand and Steve Lyons, and directed by Jamie Anderson. It is available to purchase at the Big Finish site here and goes on general release on the 31st August 2020. Here's the synopsis...
Separated from his companions, the Doctor attempts to find solace in the history of his favourite planet – Earth – but instead discovers new threats lying in wait.
Travelling from twentieth-century East Berlin to sixteenth-century Strasbourg, the Doctor encounters creatures from other realities: monsters beneath the waves, and human beings determined to exploit their fellow man.
But how long can he survive without a friend?
Ghost Station by Steve Lyons
Deep beneath the streets of East Berlin, Peter Meier patrols the border in an old underground station. But when the TARDIS materialises nearby, Peter realises he is far from alone.
First up, the Doctor lands in an underground station beneath the Berlin Wall in 1975. It’s empty, but for a East German guard named Meier - and a dead body.
Meier (Timothy Blore) recognises his former colleague Fischer, mysteriously deceased with no marks on his body, and the Doctor has the misfortune of arriving shortly afterwards. Once Meier lowers his gun, the the Doctor is able to gain an uneasy trust, and begins questioning Meier about what happened.
Every few minutes, a train passes through the station - technically travelling beyond the Berlin Wall, underground - before returning to the west. The idea of a two opposing cities sharing a vital point of connection is a fascinating, China Mieville-esque scenario that just happens to be taken from true history. There’s real pathos in Meier’s recollections of seeing passengers from the other side travelling on his half of the city - just passing through, for a few seconds.
Through Meier’s slow understanding of what happened, and recollections of strange sounds and shifting shadows on the opposite side of the platform, the truth eventually comes to light: and eventually we reach a moving, almost spiritual resolution to the story that demands the listener's attention. Huge credit must go to Davison and Blore for carrying the whole story on their shoulders in a rare two-hander, as well as the atmospheric sound design of Wilfredo Acosta. It’s a cracking start to this collection and a high point for writer Steve Lyons: brutal and beautiful.
The Bridge Master by Jacqueline Rayner
When the Doctor’s shadow is sacrificed by villagers, he brushes it off as medieval superstition - until he begins to grow weak. Can he uncover the truth behind the bridge master’s curse before it’s too late?
From 1975 in East Germany, we turn back a few hundred years to rural England. The Doctor makes the mistake of crossing the wrong bridge, and is captured by the plain-speaking Clement (Wayne Forester), who performs a ritual which binds his 'shadow' to the bridge: an "undying, undefeatable guardian", an avatar protecting against unwelcome intruders. The Doctor is forced to investigate when the ritual begins to actually sap his life-force, and to partner up with the woman who delivered him into the hands of danger to begin with.
It’s a tried and tested ‘future technology in olden-times’ scenario, commonplace in Doctor Who, but Jacqueline Rayner really sells it by centering three fantastic characters. A great sense of humour doesn’t go amiss either: the Doctor's companion Agatha (Kate Harbour) offers a laconic summary of her time’s (relatively) progressive attitude towards human sacrifice: “We are more civilised now. The death is slower.” Rayner provides similarly sparkling dialogue throughout the story.
Along with Ghost Station, The Bridge Master might be one of the strongest stories in this collection: both happening to use science fiction as a way of illustrating how human lives can be challenged by unimaginable events.
What Lurks Down Under by Tommy Donbavand
On the waves of the Indian Ocean, all the prisoners aboard the Lady Juliana have fallen into a trance... except a single girl. Mary Wade desperately needs a doctor - and only one will help her.
To a time somewhere between story one and two now, and a ship crossing the Indian Ocean - the Lady Juliana. The name may be familiar as one of the British ships which transported convicts, almost exclusively women and children, to Australia. The TARDIS arrives in the cargo hold, but finds the decks surprisingly empty. The crew and passengers are in the grip of a terrible sickness, Mary Wade (Laura Aikman) tells the Doctor, catatonic save for intense violent spells. It’s up to the Doctor, Mary and the ship's doctor to find a cure. It’s a great setup, and a milieu that I don’t believe Doctor Who has covered yet. Mary Wade was indeed a real historical figure, the youngest convict sent to Australia on the Lady Juliana, and a fantastic choice around which to centre a story.
It’s no spoiler to say that there’s an unconventional force behind the sickness, but the exact nature of it is very original. What the story eventually builds to is a clever, atypical resolution, and an affirmation of the moral values at the heart of Doctor Who.
The one shortcoming of the story is a slightly muddled action sequence which nevertheless shows off the scale and excitement the audio format can achieve that prose and TV can’t. What Lurks Down Under is a terrifically fun story, which also features some classic Fifth Doctor sarcasm.
The Dancing Plague by Kate Thorman
Arriving in Strasbourg at the height of the Dancing Plague, the Doctor finds himself thrust into a world of paranoia. Can he bring peace to a city at odds with its own people?
The Doctor joins another fierce-willed companion, Margareta, as he arrives in Strasbourg during one of the most famous examples of group hysteria in the history books: an infamous dancing plague in which everyday people would be unable to stop dancing, exerting themselves to the point of injury. The Doctor and Margareta fight back against a patriarchal society in which women are dismissed and the problems of the poor are ignored: as Margareta points out, in asking for help in the plight of the dancers, “the priest suggested they simply needed to dance it out.”
Our duo race to find a cure as the plague claims more victims, and the local authorities (Gerhardt, played by Forester) play for time. While The Dancing Plague is a terrific subject for a story, I would have loved to have spent more time here, in this world and with these characters.
Time Apart comes with the standard music suite, an excellent and diverse set of cues from Wilfredo Acosta (also the sound designer here), as well as a trailer for the Fifth Doctor's next adventures: Thin Time/Madquake.
Scott Handcock, co-producer, is on hand to offer praise for his writers: including Jacqueline Rayner, who writes strongly grounded historical adventures which also happen to be terrific tales, and Tommy Donbavand, an experienced writer who sadly passed away last year but fulfilled his ambition of writing a Big Finish adventure. He also lauds the work ethic of Kate Thorman, writer of The Dancing Plague.
Peter Davison shares his affection for stories in which the Doctor "fiddles with history", in particular for What Lurks Down Under and his one-time companion Mary Wade - but also for his regular TARDIS team.
The supporting cast are also on hand to add their perspective on the stories. Timothy Blore talks about the evocative and unusual nature of East Berlin as a setting for a Doctor Who story in Ghost Station. Kate Harbour, who plays Agatha in The Bridge Master, talks about her character's sympathetic motivations for doing a bad thing to the Doctor, while Laura Aikman (who plays Mary Wade) praises Harbour's impressive work as the Teuthis - a gargantuan fish monster.
Some Final Thoughts...
All in all, the latest of Big Finish's annual four-part anthologies is a great investment: a reminder that a few great concepts, with the right talent and a breakneck pace, can be just as enjoyable as a longer yarn. The writers involved have clearly been given free rein to create fantastical worlds in miniature: each of these settings could warrant a full adventure, but we barely pause for breath in between these four outstanding stories.
Give me quality and quantity any day.