Doctor Who – The Ninth Doctor Adventures Vol 1: Ravagers (Big Finish Review)

Christopher Eccleston’s Ninth Doctor was the face of Doctor Who when it re-launched back in 2005 and became a TV phenomenon. With new companion Rose and a fresh twenty-first energy to the show, courtesy of showrunner Russell T Davies, that first 13-episode run had some highs (The Unquiet Dead, The Empty Child) and some lows (Aliens of London), but it proved that a show that first aired 42 years ago and ran for 26 seasons could still be popular with modern audiences.

Sadly, Eccleston only lasted a single season. There are hints of dissatisfaction behind the scenes, but whatever the reason, the Ninth Doctor was just a brief – but memorable – lead, before the show went on to greater heights with the likes of David Tennant and Matt Smith in the role. Hopes of a return on the show’s 50th anniversary were dashed, when Eccleston declined to return and an obvious distance from the show suggested those 13 episodes would be all we would ever get from the Ninth Doctor.

Until now.

To the delight of fans worldwide, Big Finish announced that Christopher Eccleston would reprise the role at Big Finish for twelve new ‘episodes’, a virtual pre-series one of Ninth Doctor adventures, set between the events of the Time War (and the War Doctor’s regeneration at the end of The Day of the Doctor) and 2005 series one opener Rose. And now, the first of four volumes of new Ninth Doctor stories have been released, with Eccleston firmly back as the Doctor we fell in love with sixteen years ago…

The Ninth Doctor Adventures kicks things off with Ravagers, a three-part opening story that wastes no time in launching into the action. It’s a truly bombastic opening set, with Christopher Eccleston quickly recreating the energetic northerner that we first met in Rose. He might sound a little older (as all Doctors do at Big Finish), but it feels like the man we saw on screen. Joining him is new companion Nova (Camilla Beeput), who becomes involved in a high-stakes adventure with the universe – and time itself – under threat.

Let’s delve into each story as I am joined by huge Doctor Who fan, my fifteen-year old son Ben, to discuss this exciting new release from Big Finish. A warning of potential spoilers below…

 

Sphere of Freedom

 

 

Baz Greenland

There’s a season-finale feel to the opening story of Ravagers, with Roman soldiers marching through the streets of modern day London and time eddies erasing people from existence. The writing and direction from Nicholas Briggs isn’t subtle, but then that’s half the charm of this release, which is a hugely celebratory return for the Ninth Doctor. Arguably, there are a lot of ideas we’ve seen before; across the hundreds of Doctor Who releases from Big Finish and almost sixty years of televised stories, you would be hard pushed to find something completely original. But Sphere of Freedom is like all the best bits of Russell T Davies’ high stakes world-ending drama fused with Steven Moffat’s clever use of switching time periods and narratives, all brought together in one lovely birthday present.

Framing the story around the Ninth Doctor’s conversation with the mysterious Audrey (Jayne McKenna), offers an effective way of flitting from one perilous adventure to another; if anything the first half of Sphere of Freedom feels like a collection of mini adventures before calming down with the Doctor’s introduction to new companion Nova (Camilla Beeput). As companions go, she’s certainly got courage, wit and enthusiasm, while feeling very different to Rose, who would become the beloved central companion of the Ninth Doctor era. She plays off Eccleston well, who is clearly relishing the OTT nature of the action sequences, while also playing well of Beeput and McKenna in the quieter, more reflective scenes.

With larger than life characters, like Jamie Parker’s Captain Halloran and Dan Starkey’s Marcus Aurelius Gallius, Sphere of Freedom is packed with big personalities to go with the big story. If anything, Beeput is a little overshadowed at times, though she does get plenty of limelight in the following story. McKenna’s low-key performance is a nice contrast however, particularly when Audrey’s true motives are revealed.

There are also knowing winks to the audience as Brigg’s script indulges in the crazy concept of a high stakes game that just happens to involve the destruction of the known universe and a cliff-hanger that teases plenty more to come. It might have a ‘chuck everything into the kitchen sink’ feel to it, but Sphere of Freedom is a lot of fun and a great way to reintroduce us to the Ninth Doctor.

 

Alternate artwork – 2005 style…

 

Ben Greenland

For fifteen years there was that sad knowledge that Christopher Eccleston would not play the Ninth Doctor again. And then on that fateful day in August last year, everything changed. And now, finally, the nine month long wait has ended. Eccleston is back!

Thrown right into the action, we’re not offered much of a breather until after the opening credits, playing to the engaging idea entertainment has of starting in the middle of the story. It’s all a bit hectic, which gives us a bombastic entrance to The Ninth Doctor Adventures. Then we have the framing device of the story being a narrative told by the Doctor, allowing us to witness the (no less chaotic) events leading up to our entrance point. It’s a fine showcase to prove that Eccleston is as great in the role as he ever was while throwing in the fun elements we come to enjoy from a good Doctor Who story.

The imagery conjured up paints a glorious picture in your head, and is something that you would only see Doctor Who attempt to try. Romans marching through early 1950’s London streets, time eddies swirling around plucking innocents and depositing them across all time and space… It’s the sort of enjoyment you want to receive.

We don’t get to see masses of new friend Nova here unfortunately, due to the way this opening episode is structured, but the decent chunk we do have certainly portrays a strong willed, but vulnerable accomplice to the Doctor’s actions and Camilla Beeput’s performance is great, wonderfully bouncing off Eccleston in her interactions with the Doctor, while the mysterious Audrey offers a tantalising mystery as we head into a series finale-esque cliff-hanger and the next few episodes. Nick Briggs is most certainly not holding back in the ideas on display, and while it may be hard to follow without proper concentration, it’s still a very fun time.

Cataclysm

 

 

Baz Greenland

How do you top the end of the universe? That’s the question at play as we head into the second story Cataclysm. With the stakes set, the second story focuses the mystery behind the titular Ravagers, while still adding plenty of high stakes drama. There’s no less subtlety, with Russian Panza tanks at the Battle of Waterloo only one of the many bizarre treats on offer as events start to unravel.

Cataclysm does give Camilla Beeput time to shine, as Nova finds herself trapped in a life and death situation for much of the first half of the story with a killer AI. There’s already a nice bond with Eccleston’s Doctor, particularly when they team up on an alien planet to uncover the truth behind the universe-ending events. Jayne McKenna’s Audrey proves to be both an ally and foil to the investigating duo, while there’s an amusing sub plot between the Ninth Doctor and the Ben Lee’s guard, that is sure to create a few fun theories.

The second story starts off as bombastic as the first, thought the quieter moments in the second half offer something of a breather before we head into the finale. It does solid work building the relationship between the Doctor and Nova and the high stakes established give our favourite Timelord plenty of motivation. Arguably it’s bigger than anything we saw in the 2005 series (and that’s including the Daleks), making it an odd choice perhaps to reintroduce him earlier in his life. But I appreciate that it doesn’t go down the darker post-Time War trauma either. As much as that’s an interesting story to tell, Brigg’s scripts play to the Ninth Doctor’s brash energy and Cataclysm is a great story to see him in action.

 

 

More alternate artwork

 

Ben Greenland

With the stakes known, it’s surprising yet earned and satisfying how Cataclysm takes the quieter moments to breathe. While we have tanks at Waterloo and the literal destruction of the universe planting a greater sense of threat than most TV stories of this time, there are plenty of moments of charm between Nova and the Doctor here. Beeput really gets to show us her performance and take on Nova as the story unfolds, giving us an interesting, layered and enjoyable character.

While the middle segment of this three part story, the amalgamation of chaos continues to be thrown our way, helping the scale of the story become truly apparent. And yet, it is very much those softer more relaxed moments that truly bring this episode into its own. From the TARDIS interactions between Nova and the Doctor, their gradual investigating of Audrey’s home, we also have moments with other characters, such as Audrey and the Doctor and Audrey’s meeting with the president, which continue to grow the narrative.

It’s very much continuing the Timey-Wimey nature of Ravagers as it goes on, while letting us know a bit more about the titular monsters to whet our appetites… It’s a bit calmer than Sphere of Freedom which is useful, giving us the time to properly get to know the characters as we head into the finale…

 

Food Fight

 

 

Baz Greenland

Food Fight is a delightful final entry in the Ravagers story, as the Doctor attempts to round up all of history’s displaced citizens, while the storylines surrounding Audrey converge in spectacular fashion. There’s plenty of laughs to be had, usually centred around the odd couple relationship between Captain Halloran and Marcus Aurelius Gallius, and plenty of joy in the Doctor and Nova’s trip through the void that feels like a classic Doctor-companion rite of passage. With Briggs having the space to tell the story Ravagers over three episodes, it is moments like the journey in the TARDIS that prove to be as enjoyable as the race to save the universe from the greater threat at play.

There is a lot of fun mined from having the Doctor crossing his own time streams; it keeps the listener on their toes as the Doctor navigates his relationship with Audrey. Fans of the Ninth Doctor’s righteous speeches will get a kick of hearing him rant over the damage caused to time. Briggs also manages to throw a couple of big twists, meaning that the narrative never feels predictable. It’s also a triumphant story for Nova, who certainly proves herself by rallying the troops and leading the fight.

Food Fight is a suitably epic conclusion to an epic, often bonkers story. It’s probably one that takes a couple of listens to get the full experience – thought that could be said for the entire volume. Once you get past the fun of having the Ninth Doctor back and the joy of seeing time fall apart around the Doctor, the unravelling mystery of the Ravagers and the connection between the Doctor and Audrey makes for a compelling story. To go any deeper into the events would spoil the surprises in store for the listener.

The Ravagers trilogy is a delight to listen to. It’s silly, it’s fun and it’s often not subtle. But it’s also much more too. The final act of Food Fight is a very satisfying conclusion to the story that has a number of great twists and turns and an absolutely delightful final conversation between the Doctor and Nova, that will be sure to out a smile on the face of any Doctor Who fan. Most importantly, it puts the Ninth Doctor at the heart of the narrative, making him the ultimate hero. It’s quite simply, fantastic!

 

 

Another 2005 twist on a 2021 story…

 

Ben Greenland

Food Fight very much feels like a deserved season finale. Bringing pretty much every character from the entire overall story into play, and racing against the collapse of the universe, it’s the culmination of Ravagers into one entertaining time. Almost every character gets a chance to shine, and comedy and seriousness are balanced perfectly.

While it is very much an episode on large proportions, we again have the softer moments with character interaction mixed in with the general insanity of the other events happening. While the last episode focused much more on Nova’s relationship with the Doctor, this time we get to see the intriguing history between him and Audrey, which acts as a mystery throughout the entire story but specifically so in this final episode, culminating in a very different resolution.

Nova gets to play the hero quite a bit here, leading her own gang to help save the universe and is a testament to her development over the three episodes of how she’s softened and slightly changed. Indeed, the supporting cast are a lot of fun and everyone has the right chemistry with each other. Adding a last twist in stopping the titular Ravagers, Food Fight‘s title takes on a new meaning as the Doctor gets to confront the creatures in a triumphant way to combat the threat to time, and adds to a greater feeling of hope and satisfaction before the final 10 minutes play out.

Ravagers is something special. Spreading the story over the three episodes allows Briggs to flesh out his mish mash of ideas in a satisfying way while balancing drama, monsters and character in equal fashion. But really, this set is about the return of the Ninth Doctor himself. Eccleston does sound a tad older, which is to be expected after 15-16 years and that distinct heavy northerness has dropped a little, but is very much the same man. His performance is as great as it ever was, and it kicks off these four sets of The Ninth Doctor Adventures with a bang. After all this time, he’s back and it’s simply, Fantastic! (I know we’ve already used it!)

 

The Ninth Doctor Adventures Vol 1: Ravagers has been written and directed by Nicholas Briggs and is available at the Big Finish site on audio download and vinyl. It goes on general sale on the 31st July 2021.

 

Extras

 

A seven minute music suite for Ravagers rounds off disc three. Howard Carter’s score is a glorious fusion of 80s’s Doctor Who electronica and the bombastic, brassy tones of Murray Gold’s modern music. A heady dose of synth mixed with soaring electronic beats and atmospheric chords, elegant piano and eerie, gothic organ music; this is a stunning suite of music that only adds to the magic of the release. A noticeably grand accompaniment to each story, it is also a delight to listen to in isolation. That heroic theme  that kicks in at the five minute mark is just joyful.

The final disc provides a full hour of behind the scenes interviews with the cast and crew that are a staple of all Big Finish releases. David Richardson introduces The Ninth Doctor Adventures and talks the gestation of the project over the years, while writer and director Nicholas Briggs delves into the idea of history being disrupted as the concept for the story, contrasting the Doctor’s strength with the sense of loss that kicks off the narrative and the fun of writing non-linear stories. Of course, it’s Christopher Eccleston’s insight into returning to Doctor Who that we’re all interested in and there’s some lovely insight from the actor and Briggs into the nature of his approach to playing the role. Eccleston reflects on playing such a heroic role in contrast to the more troubled characters he is most known for playing.

All the cast share their own delightful reflections on the characters they play, particularly the hundreds of accents flying around, Dan Starkey’s CV of historical languages and a common theme of the last year – recording audios from home. But the most engaging are the moments shared with Eccleston. Camilla Beeput and Eccleston offer their thoughts on the vulnerability and strength of companion Nova and her relationship – and similarities – with the Doctor. Similarly, Eccleston delves into the relationship with Jayne McKenna’s Audrey (a self-proclaimed sci-fi fan), while offering some lovely insights into his personal relationship with the show. Eccleston’s wish to have done a black and white episode, in the style of Hartnell and Troughton, sharing his childhood memories of watching Doctor Who, make for riveting listening. It is a treasure trove of personal insights that fans may not have experienced, given Eccleston’s largely distant relationship with the show since leaving.

Briggs, Richardson and Starkey also share their thought and memories on the show’s return back in 2005 and what Eccleston brought to the role of a modern Doctor for the twenty first century. Eccleston and Briggs’ memories of recording season one and working with Briggs as the voice of the Daleks, are lovely, heartful, sometimes mournful; Eccleston talking about his father’s dementia while recording Doctor Who is heart-breaking. For those able to record in the studio – using social distancing – the reflections on working with and observing Eccleston in action reveal a huge admiration for the actor playing the Doctor. Briggs and Eccleston talk about the trepidation about returning to the show, with Eccleston recognising the positivity of attending conventions in recent years and seeing how the Doctor impacts people’s lives. There are lots of insightful, truthful moments that reflect Eccleston’s slow but steady return to the world of Doctor Who – and we can all be very grateful for that.

 

 

Synopsis

 

Three brand new adventures featuring Christopher Eccleston as the Ninth Doctor, written by Nicholas Briggs.

1.1 Sphere of Freedom

On the Sphere of Freedom, the Doctor is about to shut down an evil Immersive Games business empire. He’s assisted by a valiant galley chef called Nova. But his plan spectacularly fails… And who exactly is Audrey?

1.2 Cataclysm

Nova is dislocated in time while the Time Eddies are out of control. Meanwhile, the Doctor is about to face the end of the universe. Or is that just the Battle of Waterloo?

1.3 Food Fight 

The TARDIS is starting to get a little crowded! Audrey finds herself haunted by a ghostly Doctor.

Cast

 

Christopher Eccleston (The Doctor)

Camilla Beeput (Nova)

Clare Corbett (Ravager)

Ben Lee (Lieutenant Farraday)

Anjella MacKintosh (AI / President / Cafe Owner)

Jayne McKenna (Audrey)

Jamie Parker (Captain Halloran)

Dan Starkey (Marcus Aurelius Gallius)

 

Credits

 

 

Cover Art by Tom Webster

Director Nicholas Briggs

Executive Producer Nicholas Briggs, Jason Haigh-Ellery

Music by Howard Carter

Producer David Richardson

Script Editor Matt Fitton

Sound Design by Iain Meadows

Written by Nicholas Briggs

 

Recommended Listening

 

Doctor Who – The Doctor Chronicles: The Ninth Doctor

Doctor Who – Short Trips: Battle Scars

Doctor Who: The Tenth Doctor Adventures Volume 01

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