The Year of Martha Jones from Big Finish is what happens when actor availability becomes a blessing for a company, and where having company becomes the opposite of that for the character played. But it’s also a release that, no matter how much further suffering Martha Jones will be put through, fans of the franchise have been waiting on for a long time.
The boxset kicks off in an American diner, or at least in what’s left of America, where Martha arrives and just happens to bump into an old friend from when she was training to be a doctor. It’s one of a string of not-quite-coincidences, but developments made to keep you on alert at all times.
Post-America in this Master-led world is as bleak as you can get, with people moved around the world by shipping container or even rockets to man camps and replace the ones who die on the job – often via a Toclafane execution. World-building is written expertly in with little remarks, such as Earth’s population getting headaches when the coffee ran out, and paints Martha as some sort of global icon already.
The Toclafane voices, delivered by Clare Louise Connolly in this boxset, tickle that bit of the mind that tells you to be absolutely terrified and so every time they appear, it really sucks you into the environment Martha is in. They are after her, as are minions of the Master, but the greater threat is that the Toclafane kill indiscriminately and so she could die in any encounter. There is one particularly horrific anecdote about the Toclafane’s enjoyment of human suffering that harks back to real-world horrors seen in 21st Century regimes.
Because of Martha’s status, and her storytelling skills, she is treated as a VIP at the diner. But things turn a little sour when another person from her past turns up.
Despite John Simm not appearing in the boxset, the manic and grim glee of his Series 3 performance as the Master is still felt via anecdotes on some of the things he has done during the Year That Never Was. One of the most horrifying is bringing corpses to be looked at to verify if they are Martha or not. This release can be graphic.
Just like the New Series Adventures novel, The Story of Martha, the main narrative action bookends stories from Martha about her travels with the Doctor and what lessons can be learned from those experiences to survive in the Master’s world. Freema Agyeman does a good impression of the Tenth Doctor, jutting out the jaw in the way David Tennant does, but given this is a full cast boxset with some top-bill names, it does seem a little bit of a shame that the ‘telling stories’ approach is taken, although they are interrupted by the supporting characters’ live reaction to Martha’s tales.
At the same time though, taking this approach is a huge strength because the quality of storytelling is so reminiscent of the prose being put out during this era of Doctor Who, and it’s supported by musical cues very reminiscent of the ones used in Last of the Time Lords.
One of the most sceptical of Martha is her own mother Francine Jones, and Adjoa Andoh quickly proves why she’s such a well renowned actor. Her disappoint in her own daughter and in the Doctor always shines through, but her anger stems from the fact she realises it’s because Martha loves him and that’s what hurts her most. And throughout it is Martha’s friend who Francine supports, while Martha remains suspicious of everyone and everything when she can. And just as she relaxes… BOOM, a cliffhanger.
The story has to quite literally move on in episode two, which runs into territory familiar to viewers of The Walking Dead as different groups of survivors make their cliques and conflict or submission ensues. This time, it’s a geographical as well as thematical link from the story Martha is telling to the action going on in her present, and this ‘live by our rules’ post-apocalyptic story goes into very explicit ‘these are the defects of capitalism’ territory (an idea which I’m sure Russell T Davies loved if Big Finish got his approval for these storylines). And it’s probably not a coincidence that a mine is one of the settings and overworked miners are some of the characters.
A market price is put on Martha’s storytelling, the output per hour that could have been provided had work taken place instead, and it does therefore require her to up the pace. This means we get a faster and tighter story that is very of its era and is so evocative of 2007 (a year with just 13 or so episodes as a sample size to get an ‘era feel’ from) and has another ending which means you have to go straight into episode three to find out the conclusion of events.
Episode three’s title is Deceived, and that tells you a lot. Straight away, the Master’s influence and stratagems become clear and if you hadn’t already suspected something was up in the first two episodes then the start of this one will get you intrigued. After almost a side-step to the horrors that humanity can inflict on each other in episode two, this one goes back to the violence of the Toclafane and their master.
But then there’s a twist, and even if the ending is a rushed bloodbath that doesn’t truly provide closure, the criss-crossing that brings the audience to that point is full of plot points and character beats to chew on (even if not many are focused on Martha’s own reactions and development).
That’s a shame, but this boxset does do a good job of establishing its original characters so they don’t exist in her shadow – although they quite literally do given her celebrity status – and it’s still a highly recommended listen for fans of Doctor Who Series 3 and of Martha Jones.
If you listen to it in the dark, too, then those Toclafane voices are going to give you nightmares…