I was never a big fan of “Dark Eyes,” the series of box sets starring Paul McGann that took the place of Big Finish’s old Eighth Doctor Adventures. They were driven heavily by technobabble, and tonal inconsistencies plagued the series. Fortunately, the final release in that series was the best of the lot, which bodes well for “Doom Coalition,” the new box set series. The first episode of the first box is “The Eleven,” written by Matt Fitton, and it’s largely an introductory piece that establishes the main players around a fairly traditional capture-and-escape plot.
“The Eleven” of the title is a Time Lord criminal dealing with a unique mental condition: he is in his eleventh incarnation, yet all ten of his previous selves are awake and fighting for position in his brain. Complicating matters is the fact that he’s largely insane, with only his eighth self appearing at all on the other side of the bounds of sanity. They do take pains to point out that this condition isn’t the cause of his insanity in itself, but I can’t imagine that it helps. Mark Bonnar plays the Eleven, and by that I mean he plays all eleven incarnations at once. It’s a very good performance – he powers through his scenes, papering over any inconsistencies with the force of his acting. It is, however, somewhat difficult to get over the fact that his arguments with his previous selves are composed entirely of the same actor doing a series of silly voices. And all of those arguments end the same way, with Bonnar yelling something like “All of you, silence!” The story is barely an hour long and it’s practically a running gag already. It’s also sledgehammer-obvious that he’s a twisted parallel of the Doctor himself: the Three is patrician, the Six is a maniac, the Eight is the most “human,” and so forth. Oh, and he steals a TARDIS at the end and flees (apparently) to Earth in the 1960s. I’m dubious about where this is going, but it certainly has the potential for greatness, so we’ll see.
The story is set on Gallifrey, and as usual for Big Finish, nothing particularly imaginative is done with the ancestral seat of the most ancient and powerful race in the universe. I understand that they want to maintain the bureaucratic feeling of the Gallifrey series, and I like the references to Romana changing the face of Time Lord politics, but it’s still a dreary setting. Here we have the Time Lord prison in the heart of the Capitol, the place where some of their most dangerous criminals are kept, and… the cells are kept in a slightly different time zone and the doors have “ultra-locks” on them. That’s it? I’m not asking for “The Book of the War” here but can’t we have something a little more interesting? Fitton also employs a device I don’t normally like: driving the plot forward by introducing a new aspect of Gallifreyan law. This is fine when it resolves a necessary obstacle – allowing the Doctor to avoid a murder trial in “The Deadly Assassin,” for example – but here it powers the entire story. Apparently, in a time of crisis and with the President away, the highest-ranking individual remaining may declare himself or herself Acting President without a vote – and wouldn’t you know it, the Eleven was technically on the High Council during his first incarnation! I don’t like this because it makes the story feel like it’s making things up as it goes; yes, it puts us in the Doctor’s shoes a few steps behind the Eleven, but there’s absolutely no sense of limit or control to the plot.
Despite all of that, there’s a lot to like in “The Eleven.” Some of the Eleven’s previous incarnations are genuinely disturbing, and if they’re allowed to come to the fore for more than just arguments, this could be a fantastic villain. He’s also unpredictable: I didn’t see the final scene ending the way it did. The performances are excellent across the board: I’ve already mentioned Mark Bonnar, and Paul McGann seems particularly invested in this, while Nicola Walker continues to give revelatory performances. Liv seems like a real person who actually reacts believably to the story – she’s rapidly becoming one of my favorites of Big Finish’s original companions. Kiani (Bethan Walker) is a bit too earnest at times, but that sets up the surprising conclusion so I’m not complaining. And the prologue, with Sylvester McCoy’s Seventh Doctor imprisoning the Eleven, is note-perfect and a fantastic introduction. Ken Bentley directs the whole set, while Wilfredo Acosta provides solid sound design. Overall, “The Eleven” is a very promising start that succeeds in spite of its few flaws. I’m excited to see where this goes, and that’s a great endorsement for a premiere.
THE RED LADY
One of the major problems with the Dark Eyes sets was their tendency to wander: they aimed to tell one coherent story spread across four set pieces, but almost always felt unfocused, unsure which path they wanted to take. Judging from “The Red Lady,” by John Dorney, this first Doom Coalition set will not suffer from the same issue: it’s an incredibly well told story that barely involves the arc plot at all.
The Doctor and Liv travel to 1960s London in pursuit of the Eleven, and while there, they become embroiled in an unrelated adventure. Sometimes I wonder if this is the ideal way to do Doctor Who arc plotting: an overall objective punctuated by adventures along the way. The series has frequently struggled with stronger narrative links, and that’s been true on television, on audio, and in the novels. And the arc plot is fairly silly here: the Doctor has to track a temporal anomaly to a stone tablet, which he must decode to find a message from Galileo? I understand the Eleven is insane, but really? The Master would be proud of that one.
The central concept of “The Red Lady” is brilliant: a mysterious woman appears in works of art to the first person to view them, and then steadily haunts that person, appearing to emerge from the art itself before finally killing them. It’s a ghost story, in essence, with strong elements of “The Ring” and the Matt Smith story “The Time of Angels.” Best of all, it’s genuinely scary: the tension is ratcheted up throughout, as each character starts to perceive the Red Lady and realizes their doom is drawing closer. We see the ultimate threat through the tragic demise of Walter (David Yelland) – and isn’t it nice to have a supporting character characterized this well? He’s actually sympathetic despite having some less appealing qualities, and his death is a genuine blow.
“The Red Lady” also introduces a new companion character in Helen Sinclair, a linguist and historian trying to assert herself in a male-dominated field in a misogynistic time. She’s classic companion material – smart, resourceful, sympathetic, funny – but Dorney doesn’t beat you over the head telling you how great she is, opting instead to show her suitability for the TARDIS crew through her actions. Some of the writing is a bit overwrought – her initial confrontation at work with a superior is almost a caricature of close-minded 1960s attitudes – but for the most part this is a great introduction. Hattie Morahan is a fine casting choice as well, portraying Helen as a mature, capable human being. My only complaint is that her voice is a bit too similar to Nicola Walker’s, but I’ll get used to it.
McGann and Walker are great in this, too. It’s a common strategy to have either the Doctor or the companion afflicted by the alien threat, but both of them at once? Dorney also continues his wonderful habit of effectively concealing information that seems so obvious in retrospect – of course the original collector was blind, why didn’t I figure that out? But perhaps best of all is the story’s refusal to be explained: we never find out who or what the Red Lady is and there is no last-minute technobabble describing what happened. While I appreciate the rational bent of Doctor Who for the most part, we need more stories like this – the Doctor doesn’t need to know all the answers.
Overall, “The Red Lady” is an excellent story, one that builds a great deal of confidence for this “Doom Coalition” series. It’s well written, scary, and it introduces a promising new companion to boot. More like this, please.
THE GALILEO TRAP
The third episode in the first Doom Coalition set, “The Galileo Trap,” comes from Marc Platt. After two high-quality installments to open the set, this story is a bit more sedate – not much happens and it seems to exist largely to set up the final part. Fortunately, some strong character work helps to elevate it above the purely mundane.
This is new companion Helen’s first journey in the TARDIS, and Platt’s script doesn’t shy away from showing her enjoying her new surroundings. As a qualified historian, she has a familiarity with Renaissance Italy, and it’s fun to listen to her marvel at the new sights while simultaneously understanding what’s going on around her. Unfortunately, she also immediately discovers what it means to be one of multiple companions: sometimes there really isn’t much for you to do. Granted, she’s out of her depth, while the Doctor and Liv are both well equipped to deal with alien incursions, but Helen mostly trails around in the background asking an occasional question. I have a good sense of her personality at this point but I’d like to know more about what experiences have informed her viewpoints, and there’s not much to learn from a story like this.
The best part of the story by far is John Woodvine’s Galileo. The famous astronomer is written and performed with much more depth than the usual historical celebrity figure: his story is layered with truths and lies, and his motivations are complicated and sometimes unclear. He obviously values his friendship with the Doctor, but he’s still willing to betray him to maintain a semblance of family life, even if he knows his “daughter” is really an alien mercenary. It’s very easy to describe a character as a genius; it’s much more difficult to create that impression, and Platt certainly does so with Galileo, who is basically the smartest person in any room.
The plot, such as it is, is very slight. Intergalactic mercenaries insert themselves into Renaissance life, monitoring Galileo for the next time the Doctor pays him a visit. From there, they aim to capture him and bring him to the Eleven. The Doctor vanquishes them – and then heads off to meet the Eleven anyway! I’m not saying this doesn’t make sense, but it does give a strong impression that this story didn’t really need to be here. On top of that, the mercenaries aren’t particularly interesting characters – Harry Myers in particular goes almost comically over the top – and together “The Galileo Trap” feels like it’s treading water until the finale.
It’s worth a listen, though, even if only to hear how the stage is set for “The Satanic Mill.” The script is exciting and economical, and as mentioned above, the character work is largely quite strong. In the Dark Eyes sets, a story like this would have been about the best we could hope for. In the early days of Doom Coalition, if this is the “floor,” we’re still in for a treat.
THE SATANIC MILL
The problem with writing epic conclusions to serialized stories is that you need to make the finale live up to the promise of the preceding episodes. I’ve complained at length about Big Finish’s pattern of failure in this situation, and the issue rears its ugly head yet again in Edward Collier’s “The Satanic Mill,” the final story in the first Doom Coalition series and a very disappointing conclusion to an otherwise entertaining set.
When the Eleven was introduced in, um, “The Eleven,” the character demonstrated serious promise. A Time Lord displaying the personalities of each of his incarnations is a concept ripe for exploration. In that first story, presenting the villain on a surface level was acceptable because it was his introduction – the fact that he doesn’t do much more than argue with himself didn’t bother me too much. Unfortunately, he’s exactly the same in “The Satanic Mill.” Get ready for more scenes involving Mark Bonnar arguing with himself in funny voices, then yelling “SILENCE, ALL OF YOU!” before continuing with his plans. He is neither interesting nor threatening; we learn nothing about him nor does he present any danger greater than that of a thousand other Doctor Who megalomaniacs.
He’s basically the Master with different trappings, in other words. His plan is utterly ludicrous: he constructs a space station inside the orbit of Mercury to house a stellar manipulator with which he intends to destroy the Sun. But he needs a Time Lord to power it, and he wants to use the Doctor for the purposes of irony. Now, Doctor, you shall be responsible for the destruction of your favorite planet! Mwa ha ha! But he needs the Doctor to actually show up and try to stop him, so he adds more nonsense to the plan to draw the Doctor in. But didn’t he hire a gang of space mercenaries to capture the Doctor in the story just before this one, thus obviating the need for a more elaborate plan? You may remember that, but Collier doesn’t, so the Eleven models his space station after a workhouse, complete with indentured workers, to compel the Doctor to intervene. This is saved largely because it’s a cool image, but really – powering your ancient Time Lord weapon by forcing a bunch of people to walk on treadmills?! Perhaps this is a consequence of contracting a brand new author, who has apparently never been credited with anything else, to write the final installment in the first box set of a new series. How curious.
The final confrontation is pretty weak as well. The Eleven straps the Doctor to his machine, argues with him for a while, and then runs off to savor his victory – and leaves the Doctor’s sonic screwdriver behind, unguarded, along with a worker that’s been helping the Doctor! Does the Eleven have a “really, really stupid” incarnation we haven’t heard yet that took over in that moment? Also, this is the final story in a box set named “Doom Coalition 1” – would it kill them to hint, even once, over four hours of drama, at what the Doom Coalition is? Or what the Eleven’s plan is, besides “kill the Doctor with irony?” Could they maybe have ended the story on a less awkward note than the Doctor declaring it time for a holiday?
There is some material here worth hearing, fortunately. The story wisely pairs up Liv and Helen, giving them their own obstacles to overcome. The actors have fantastic chemistry and the characters work together quite well – it’s a nice contrast between Liv’s pragmatism and Helen’s brash idealism. The set in general is also directed very well by Ken Bentley and features very solid sound design from Wilfredo Acosta. But overall, “The Satanic Mill” is a weak ending to an otherwise strong set, featuring generic Doctor Who villainy and very little to pique the interest. Hopefully future Doom Coalition sets will be closer to “The Eleven” and “The Red Lady” than they are to this.