The Doctor Who Companion

Get your daily fix of news, reviews, and features with the Doctor Who Companion!

Reviewed: Big Finish’s The Ninth Doctor Adventures – Buried Threats

The third series of Big Finish’s Ninth Doctor Adventures has gone in multiple directions, and the third boxset in the series does little to suggest there will be any narratives that will be returned to in the final three episodes released in May.

There’s lots of new characters, but as in the previous boxset, it’s reuniting with an old friend that is the highlight.

Buried Threats begins with A Theatre of Cruelty, the seventh episode of the series, and takes the Ninth Doctor (Christopher Eccleston) to Paris via somebody ringing the TARDIS’ doorbell while it’s in the vortex. Cue titles.

It’s a very Russell T Davies-way to start an episode, with some notably 2000s cultural references coming in as the Doctor is introduced to French theatre pioneer Antonin Artaud. There’s no doubt he is an interesting figure and his work proved very important, but this episode fails to make him a character worth caring about.

Initially, the story is set in 16th Century Rome, but all is not as it seems since Artaud is from the 20th Century. The past is reaching out to him, and the Doctor interrupts this process just as Artaud interrupted the TARDIS. They have to work together to solve what is happening, but their time together is spent more as a history lesson since this is the equivalent of a celebrity historical. While the audience gets to find out a lot about Artaud’s vision, there’s not enough of him doing anything other than talking through the episode.

There’s a fun mention of Big Finish actor and writer, Lizzie Hopley — a reference, however, which will make no sense to audiences not familiar with the names behind Big Finish’s current output and their work away from Big Finish — and some interesting visuals that the listener has to realise in their head including a teapot-sized TARDIS. This is Artaud’s story, which is clearly one that means a lot to the writer, Lisa McMullin and to Ninth Doctor actor, Christopher Eccleston, but using a science-fiction villain in the final third to deliver the tragic element of it kind of undermines the tale and still does nothing to make him a character to care about.

It’s really only in the behind-the-scenes interviews, hearing contemporary opinions of him, that you realise how invested in Artaud you’re supposed to be. The story ends with a scene typical of this series with the Doctor getting to see how much he has improved the life of someone he’s met, but falls flat because its main character is introduced, gets plenty of plot time but has very little real-time reaction from others in their time period. The audience is dependent on the Doctor’s view of him, and actions towards him, rather than that of his contemporaries.

The next episode has less potential in its concept, but The Running Men does far more to build an entertaining story to listen to. The Halifax-based tale by Mark Wright fits the Ninth Doctor era perfectly, and kicks off with a scene on a construction site with a powerful Yvonne Hartman-esque woman delivering some sinister-sounding dialogue. It sets up the whole story, and gets you in the mood for it, in little more than two minutes.

The Doctor appears after the titles and he’s excited to encounter some vortex amoeba, making some genuinely funny quips and generally being in a very jolly mood which is in contrast to the vibe of the previous scene.

Next to be introduced into the story is Sergeant Ambika Desai (played by Fiona Wade), who is busy doing police work on the streets of North Yorkshire when the TARDIS appears in front of her and a beaming Doctor steps out of it. She arrests him for impersonating the police and takes him to the station. Oops.

Ambika is immediately likeable, and she bounces off the Doctor very well despite the relationship starting from a point of distrust. She is perfect proto-companion material, and her occupation draws immediate comparisons to fellow Yorkshire resident, Yasmin Khan. Before they reach the station, her colleagues tell her to head elsewhere, where she finds a dead body with some kind of mould on their hands. At this point, her and the Doctor’s day comes entwined with what occurred at the construction site and the death of a man called Harry Glover.

The direction is excellent as the story flits between what Ambika and the Doctor are up to and how Annalise Avenley (played brilliantly by Pooky Quesnel, who starred opposite Eccleston in The A Word) works to continue construction of the Hebble Piazza against local opposition. The audioscape — and not necessarily the music — is used expertly to tell you how high the stakes are without the need for dialogue; this is key while the split format for the narrative is used.

Annalise Avenley is supposed to be a dislikeable character but without any outright villainy, her charisma makes her someone you love to hate rather than outright dislike. And that’s even when she brings to mind many current British politicians. In fact, this whole story is on the ball with Britain’s present political issues including urban regeneration, long-term construction projects, and political protest.

But it’s not just a modern-day tale, as The Running Men becomes a history lesson about Halifax, the so-called “Venice of the North”. You don’t need to be familiar with the town, although having some kind of visual reference for what it looks like is definitely a helpful starting point as the story goes further into town lore and its link to the Avenley family.

Once the Doctor and Ambika finally meet Avenley and her guard, the science fiction part of the plot ramps up and the Doctor becomes part of Avenley’s plans. Amid the drama there’s still great character dynamics (it’s very Northern), and as is often the case in this series the Doctor gives a friend the chance to be the hero of the day or to do something that improves their confidence or standing.

The final act stumbles a bit as it rushes the Doctor out of one dramatic climax and almost straight into another as well as into more town history while bringing the story full circle. Basically you need to be really paying attention to catch all the details, otherwise it can feel like listening to too many things happening at once.

In the same way that the opening episode of the boxset encourages the listener to then go out and experience the work of Artaud, this one serves as an advert for visiting Halifax. The audio medium probably does not help in making a compelling case — nobody buys holiday brochures that you listen to rather than look at — but it’s still a strong choice of setting for a story featuring a Doctor who famously said lots of planets have a north.

The very end scene also sets up the possibility of Ambika appearing in future Big Finish productions, which is deserved because Mark Wright has written an episode that establishes all of its original characters really well, and almost instantly as soon as each appears.

Matt Fitton’s Ancient History concludes the boxset, and reunites the Doctor with his archaeologist friend, Professor Bernice Summerfield.

The pair meet before the title sequence in an encounter where the Doctor’s identity is hidden and as he gets called Arthur van Dango, he coyly mentions that not everything should be uncovered. Benny already thinks he’s annoying and probably a harbourer of bad luck…

This is a story initially about two contrasting approaches to archaeology: Bennie’s traditional trowel-led approach and her rivals’ hologram-filled technological tectonic tunnelling. While listeners familiar with Benny from her own Big Finish range will know she’s been quite a celebrity at times, when we encounter her here, she’s no longer the ‘face of history’ for in-universe audiences interested in archaeology. There’s definitely an element of vanity and reputation management involved in her presence in this particular expedition.

The archaeological site being dug is full of battle armoury and weaponry belonging to the long lost Korravin, and Bernice’s rivals are plucking this hoard out of the ground — and often just as she is about to uncover them — without even having to get their hands dirty thanks to their particle beam extraction technology.

For a while, the Doctor keeps out of trouble, and out of the excavating, but soon gets intercepted by one side of the archaeological divide and then has to go chasing after Benny when her tent falls down a crevasse and a TARDIS-shaped item is discovered buried deep under the rock. It’s either been there two million years, or two hours…

This story is very easy to visualise, and it times Benny’s realisation of who Arthur van Dango really is just right to drive the plot forward. Her initial reactions are negative, finding his habit of apologising particularly frustrating and feeling hurt that he didn’t reveal who he was immediately. Since Benny is a very mature character, her annoyance doesn’t have to carry on later in the story and they can work together on finding out what else has been buried and whether it should really be uncovered.

The mystery of the Korravin is what attracted both archeological groups, as they were an immense invading force in the galaxy that disappeared overnight just as they were on the brink of intergalactic expansion. As can often be the case with the Ninth and Tenth Doctors, some temporal fallout from the Time War may be at play.

There’s speculation that the Doctor might be a spy for the ‘Bruce’ Master as the state of affairs escalates and time window technology brings history to the present, rather than showing the two groups of archaeologists the past. How the parts of the temporal jigsaw and the mystery of the Korravin fit together is easy to understand, so even more drama is added via shocking admissions from the Doctor and Benny’s assistant, Finnda Twisk.

How and if the main characters can escape becomes the driving force of the plot thereon, and you don’t need to be invested in the scale of threat posed by the Korravin to enjoy the drama. The Doctor does some very clever things to keep Bernice and Finnda safe, while putting himself in far more danger. His reward is a hug later on with Benny, who is thankfully still alive, and that embrace is not just a feel-good moment but another clever plot point.

The mystery of the Korravin is finally resolved, and the Doctor gets to say goodbye to Benny in a scene that equips her with a tool she’ll find very useful in the future and which fans of her character will have already seen before…

The Ninth Doctor Adventures – Buried Threats is out now from Big Finish.

Ida Wood

Reviewed: Big Finish’s The Ninth Doctor Adventures – Buried Threats

by Ida Wood time to read: 7 min
%d bloggers like this: