Big Finish’s Seventh Doctor adventure, A Life of Crime aims to do several things in the space of its run-time.
There’s a reunion for the Doctor and Ace with the Pease Pottage genius Mel, an extension in character arcs for the three leads and finally the story serves as a vague sequel to a number of Sixth and Seventh Doctor television stories.
That’s a lot for any play to do in a short amount of time whilst it battles to deliver a new and interesting plot for the audience to engage with.
Thankfully, A Life of Crime manages to make good use of the local resources and pull the cat out of the bag. The cat that’s pulled out however, has a few grumbles between the pulling and the reveal (if you don’t get that vague and hackneyed metaphor then you really shouldn’t read the rest of this review-the language doesn’t get any better).
In its broadest sense this story is a romp. A fun stroll onto an alien world of crime and capers. There’s a robbery to be had, a heist to be committed and Mel, the Doctor and Ace have all got themselves involved. Whereas the Doctor and Ace are forced into their involvement, Mel has deliberately sought hers out as a result of owing a fair few Grotzits from a debt passed on by the conspicuous-by-his-absence Sabalom Glitz.
And yet, as much as it feels as if there’s a comedy lurking within the script, everything is played with a serious and forthright tone. It’s somewhat odd that whilst there are serious characters within the story and whilst a robbery is nothing to necessarily joke about, this reviewer felt that a lighter tone would have fitted in nicely. Four episodes of gangsters, plotters and schemers could have flown by with a few jokes or a good double act (McCoy and Aldred are on good form here but nothing near as light as they can take their characters).
Beyond the performances of the piece, there’s the villains of the month. The bank robbers and their untoward clan are the least of the problems for the TARDIS crew when a group of Financiers – in reality alien beings that feast on the potential alternative futures of humans as payment – turn up to claim a mass debt. Cue much panic, mayhem and images in the mind reminiscent of the tentacle attack from the second Futurama TV movie.
These greedy blobs are good fodder and certainly hit the mark when it comes to the comments the writer is clearly trying to make on the state of the economy and the 1% ruling over the 99% however, the focus of their drive- gaining as much money as possible with no thought to the people who could never stand a chance of paying off their debt seems to be trying to make a statement that has long since been made. Perhaps if this was a background flourish to help better build the drive of the main characters, you could pique our interest. As it stands, having the main story turn into a battle of life and death (or more astutely money or death) would have been more apt a few years back.
There’s also the absence of Glitz, that lovable rogue that many remember causing more than a few problems for the Doctor. Mentions of his name, negatively and positively, throughout the duration, leads older listeners to miss his presence and newer Doctor Who fans to wonder if the character will ever turn up and answer some questions. As he doesn’t, one is left somewhat adrift in terms of a resolution. If this absence was designed to do this then hats off to the writer who has succeeded in achieving the pang of loneliness that one must experience in a universe as big and as expansive as the Doctors. If, and this review suspects this may be the case, Big Finish couldn’t secure actor Tony Selby to once more step inside the role, they have moved forward as best they could – it’s not like the story need Glitz – but with so many mentions of him over the story’s entirety, one can only end up feeling slightly robbed…which is apt…
But the shortcomings of the plot don’t stop the drama moving forward, largely in part to the three leads who give the narrative room to breath and grow. An older Mel, played with aplomb by Bonnie Langford, coupled with the wonderful double act of Aldred and McCoy, really allows us to see how well her character progresses when the usual Mel clichés are dropped. Of course, Langford has shown us this before with her other excellent Big Finish performances but this is the first time that we can see Mel after she left the Doctor. Moments with her are sweet and tender, showing a harder and yet softer side at the same time. Gone are the high pitched and exaggerated screams, the forced character expositions and the constant need to mollycoddle the Doctor. Here is a Mel that has made mistakes, has seen some of the universe and can make her own, flawed decisions.
Whilst this is a good, straightforward Doctor Who tale it nevertheless misses the mark on what it really wants to be a comedy romp with swashbuckling adventure.
Big Finish’s Doctor Who – A Life of Crime is available to buy now on CD or Download from the Big Finish site £14.99 and £12.99 respectively.