MINOR SPOILERS AHEAD.
It’s not that often you get to witness a rumble in the console room. But Food Fight, the third instalment in Big Finish’s inaugural set of adventures featuring Christopher Eccleston’s Ninth Doctor (a sentence I scarcely dreamed I’d get to compose, and one that fills me with joy) opens, or almost opens, with an actual fight, a set of mismatched travellers from different time periods at loggerheads in the TARDIS in a sort of overstretched parody of Dinosaurs on a Spaceship. The Doctor’s solution? Throw one of them out, into the freezing dark of space, where they can bounce harmlessly against the expanded shield of the craft like Steve McQueen’s baseball.
Superficially it’s a bit extreme, but you shouldn’t make the mistake of thinking this Doctor is grumpy. He may have blown up his own planet (or laboured under the misapprehension that he did) but Nicholas Briggs is clearly not about to give us a lecture about fire and anguish, even if he is spinning a yarn about genocide and the end of the universe. For the most part, this Doctor sounds positively chipper – granted, it’s the same micro-aggressive chipper that haunted much of his TV run, a stream of smart aleck remarks punctuated by brooding monologues where Eccleston’s voice drops half an octave, but at least we don’t get to hear a lot of lamentation about Gallifrey.
That’ll almost certainly come later – in the meantime, we pick up more or less where we left off in Cataclysm, with the Doctor and Nova (Camille Beeput) formulating a plan to stop the Ravagers from destroying all of space and time, as well as dealing with the mysterious Audrey and the after-effects of her sinister machinations. In practice this is rather less dreary than it sounds on paper: there are video games and there are Roman soldiers and there are even a couple of cheeky references to Doctor Who, although to say any more would rather give the game away.
Audrey herself (the splendid Jayne McKenna, all the more impressive given that she plays at least three different versions of the same character) is once more centre stage, and the narrative here is as much about her relationship with the Doctor as it is about anything else, given that he seems to be haunting her personal history in the most macabre fashion, half Time Traveller’s Wife, half Dickens.
Much of Food Fight deals with the arc established in the first two episodes (I hesitate to call them ‘stories’, given that this is basically all one story). Thus the question of what the Ravagers actually are is finally addressed, if in rather less detail than we’d like – there are clear nods to the Russell T Davies era, and it feels as if there’s a parallel universe somewhere in which he chose to launch the 2005 resurrection of Doctor Who with a very similar idea. Not that it’s in any way dated: Briggs twists and turns and toys with our perceptions with the aplomb of someone who knows how to keep it fresh, or at least freezer-fresh. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the narrative’s exploration of caricatured heroes and villains, an incredibly timely statement in today’s climate, in which people are generally seen as either saints or sinners with the grey in between largely crossed out. “What ‘everyone knows’,” remarks Audrey drily, “so often turns out to be rubbish.”
There’s quite a lot to unpack; mind you, that’s if you can keep up. This is a story about time, something that is far more incidental in Doctor Who than everybody thinks: the TARDIS has a personality and a character but when all is said and done it’s a storytelling device, a way of getting the Doctor to wherever the writers need him to be that week, with lengthy explorations of cause and effect a feature largely consigned to the Steven Moffat era. It’s disconcerting, in a way, to open the series with the sort of narrative that deals with paradoxes and crossing the timelines; Father’s Day aside, it was something Eccleston’s Doctor largely avoided. It nonetheless makes for an interesting conundrum to dissect, provided you concentrate.
If the first two instalments in this set were a muddied and sometimes confusing exercise in the elements of predestination, Food Fight does its best to iron out the kinks. It’s an occasionally arduous road and several questions remain unanswered – this sort of thing only half-works on audio, and without the aid of a flowchart it’s easy to get lost. Still, you do at least have some idea of what’s been going on, even if the timeline-altering plot elements skate a little too far from the show’s normal comfort zone, and are likely to ruffle the feathers of at least a few traditionalists.
Thrust into the limelight while the Doctor is away doing other things, Nova finally gets her chance to shine, and proves herself to be an adept, if somewhat formulaic, companion. Beeput makes the most of what she’s been given, which is sometimes rather meagre pickings; that said, there are some choice exchanges with the Doctor, and it’s quite fun listening to her negotiate with Marcus about whether blows to the head are acceptable if full-on murder is not. The word you’re looking for here, I suspect, is ‘feisty’.
But it is Eccleston who gets the gold star (which will later be seen on the floor of a space freighter, broken into a dozen pieces). I never really took to his Doctor on TV, for reasons that we won’t discuss, but he comes to the audio adventures with the confidence of someone who’s been doing it for years, whether it’s whispering sweet nothings to alien tech or introducing the hapless Captain Halloran as a “mildly incompetent British army officer, but he does his best”. The story helps – it’s a little strange to encounter a Ninth Doctor who is a good deal more capable than he ever was running around Tower Hamlets, but it seems churlish to complain about this when it gives you someone you can so easily root for.
Close your eyes, and we could be back in 2005. And given the world we’ve inherited, who in their right mind would turn that down?