Doctor Who – The Ninth Doctor Adventures: Respond to All Calls (Big Finish Review)

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Ranking the Doctor’s incarnations is a popular Doctor Who pastime. Although each actor in the role has their own devoted following, certain incarnations – notably Four and Ten – are consistently ranked highly. Recent decades have seen the show move from strength to strength, but there’s really one incarnation to thank for kickstarting the success of 21st-century Doctor Who: Christopher Eccleston’s Ninth Doctor.

The show would not be what it is today without the grounded relatability of Eccleston in a role that was never more human than during those thirteen episodes back in 2005. The Ninth Doctor was honest, vulnerable, down to earth and forthcoming about personal trauma. Scripts and production values provided a solid basis for success of that first series, but it all came together with the lead performance, making Eccleston’s return to the role sixteen years later on audio for Big Finish a true celebration.

What really shone through in volume one was Eccleston’s passion for and appreciation of the character; volume two picks up on that theme and makes it the focus of this trilogy of tales. Where Ravagers constitutes a single, three-part epic set against a far-future space backdrop, Respond to All Calls tells three standalone stories for the Doctor as he roams the universe, helping out and being kind.

Girl, Deconstructed

Ravagers was a vast, high-stakes opening salvo for the Ninth Doctor on audio, and there was a lot to love about that set, as explored by my colleague Baz Greenland here. But owing to the universe-spanning nature of that story, one key element of new Doctor Who was missing: the family element. Family ties and the vices of everyday life were key components of the 2005 series and Girl, Deconstructed nicely plugs that gap.

Writer Lisa McMullin has become increasingly prolific, and dare I say well-regarded, at Big Finish, and her latest offering is no exception. Girl, Deconstructed dabbles in ghost story and haunted house tropes, but resists becoming overtly scary in favour of heart and pathos. The TARDIS, dutifully fulfilling its function as the receiver of distress calls, notifies the Doctor of a young girl, Marnie (Mirren Mack), who has disappeared overnight. The Doctor, true to his name, is on the case, ably accompanied by Detective Constable Jana Lee (Pearl Appleby).

“Nobody is pressing anything. Unless you’re talking about tackling my ironing, in which case I’ll fetch my laundry basket. Now shut up!”

McMullin’s writing of the Doctor remains faithful to Russell T Davies’ original characterisation, presenting an intelligent and relatable, though still alien, figure who never hesitates to get involved when the need arises. Nine’s tendency to veer from flippant in one moment to deadly serious the next is a trait exhibited by other Doctors, but is particularly pronounced in this incarnation. It’s not all doom and gloom, however, with some fun TARDIS hijinks and snappy dialogue.

Marnie’s rocky relationship with her father Kurt (Forbes Masson) is the core emotional focus of the tale, in a way surprisingly reminiscent of the mother-daughter relationship in 2006’s Fear Her – an episode which, despite receiving a mixed critical reception, stays admirably grounded in human emotion. Girl, Deconstructed contains warmth, personality and charm, proving no less exciting for being so intimate.

Fright Motif

The Ninth Doctor brought us the first celebrity historical of the new era in The Unquiet Dead, and Fright Motif follows in that episode’s footsteps with a similarly evocative snapshot of the life of an artist – albeit a fictional one this time. Tim Foley’s script puts the Doctor in the middle of another mystery, one surrounding the down-and-out American pianist Artie Berger (Damian Lynch), who is struggling with grief and depression in Paris in 1946.

Fright Motif is also the first time we’ve heard the Ninth Doctor visit a period setting since the WWII of The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances – although this is set earlier in his life – and the depiction of time and place is very strong: December snowfall on Parisian streets comes to life with ease in the mind’s eye. There are echoes of Vincent and the Doctor with the exploration of grief and the loss of talent – Artie has lost his perfect pitch after being targeted by an interdimensional ‘sound beast’.

“No more. I’ve been trying to stop this monster, when really I should have been helping you.”

The unhurried pace of much of the episode, particularly its first act, works in its favour, providing a chance to really get to know Artie and his personal plight, alongside Artie’s fellow musician Zazie Vincent (Gemma Whelan) and uptight hotelier Maurice Le Bon (Adrian Schiller), who is coping with trauma of his own. Even after the threat is revealed, this remains a human story, one dealing in the realms of fear and loss: Artie has lost his mother back in the States; Maurice a partner.

With the episode centring on music, I was hoping to hear a little more – some jazz, say, or a piano solo. Nonetheless, a short jazz interlude towards the end rounds things off nicely. Fright Motif, like the opener, ends on a heart-warming note of promise and possibility, showing how the Doctor’s helping hand does indeed go a long way.

Planet of the End

Opener set in contemporary Britain? Tick. Follow-up foray into the past? Tick. Visit to an alien world to round off the trilogy? Tick. Timothy X Atack rounds off the set with a great showcase for the Doctor as a heroic figure and for Eccleston as a committed performer – alongside the kind of anti-corporate, anti-capitalist message that Doctor Who does best.

Atack has showed off his sci-fi writing chops in two previous stories for Big Finish, The Wreck of the World and Jonah, which are both examples of worldbuilding at its most immersive and detailed. Planet of the End is no different, with a rich description of surroundings, concepts and ideas that gets the imagination going. It’s important also to mention at this point how Iain Meadows’ sound design has impressed across all three stories, but particularly when realising aurally the landscape and characters of this episode.

“First time I’ve been arrested for sarcasm… not.”

The Doctor’s visit to Ocassus, an “ancient and sacred graveyard world of higher lifeforms”, has him team up with a nagging artificial intelligence called Fred (Margaret Clunie) and butt heads with Akshay Khanna’s gleefully high-brow character Sacristan Hinge. The latter is a member of the villainous Incorporation who plans to trigger the Doctor’s regeneration and siphon off the resultant artron energy to bring the rest of the species back from the dead.

Who doesn’t love a bit of alien worldbuilding? Planet of the End satisfies the sci-fi craving and alien world longing of so many Doctor Who fans, bringing this second volume of The Ninth Doctor Adventures to a thrilling close.

Respond to All Calls is Doctor Who at its most powerful and personal. There’s something here for everyone – heart and humanity, sadness and joy – all the bits that make up essential Doctor Who. After sixteen years away, you couldn’t say that Eccleston has lost it: he’s having fun and it shows. The cover art by Tom Webster is bold and rousing. With Murray Gold’s original score being off limits, composer Howard Carter has created a glorious new theme – truly a hero’s theme, one that embodies all the Doctor’s energy and soul. And lastly, I’m a sucker for extended theme tunes, so it gives me a thrill to hear the full theme play after each episode. It’s like we’re in 2005 watching the credits roll on the latest episode of Doctor Who, all over again…

The Ninth Doctor Adventures are special for more than simply being the further adventures of a less prolific Doctor – though that’s certain a huge part of its appeal. It’s no secret the Doctor is a beacon of hope not only within the fictional bounds of the television show, but also across different media and for the audience; it’s also clear that Eccleston understood this fact intimately. His ardour for the role and positive contributions to the development of these twelve episodes are genuinely affecting, with the end product supremely better off as a result.

Doctor Who – The Ninth Doctor Adventures Volume 2: Respond to All Calls was released in August 2021. It will be exclusively available to buy from the Big Finish website until 31 October 2021, and on general sale after this date.

Interviews

Sadly, there’s no isolated suite of music at the end of the release – you’ll have to check the end of Ravagers for that – but you can enjoy almost an hour of interview extras. Director Helen Goldwyn prefaces these interviews with an awareness of the “huge significance” of Christopher Eccleston’s arrival at Big Finish, and an admiration of his Doctor’s eccentricity and energy. Eccleston, for his part, is “loving it – I’m having a ball.” His enthusiasm is certainly matched by that of the rest of the cast, whose perspectives on the stories and their respective characters form a lovely way to cap off another event-piece Big Finish release. (The cast’s reflections on what music means to them is particularly worthwhile.)

“It was just pure joy to be writing this … I’ve put my heart and soul into it.”

Both Lisa McMullin and Tim Foley share a little of their approach to scripting new lines for the Ninth Doctor. McMullin tells of dual excitement and trepidation at the prospect of contributing to the Ninth Doctor’s return – and reveals how writing the story was a form of therapy for her in the midst of the 2020 lockdown. And Foley charts the journey Fright Motif took from the original idea of dramatic monologue to an instalment in The Seventh Doctor New Adventures to, eventually, a Ninth Doctor story – and explains the glee of writing for his Doctor.

Synopsis

Girl, Deconstructed by Lisa McMullin

Marnie is missing. But she hasn’t run away, as her dad fears – Marnie is still very much at home. But not quite as she was.

The Doctor joins forces with Missing Persons detective Jana Lee to help solve the mystery of a girl who’s gone to pieces.

Fright Motif by Tim Foley

In post-War Paris, musician Artie Berger has lost his mojo, but gained a predator – something that seeps through the cracks of dissonance to devour the unwary.

Luckily for Artie, the Doctor is here. Unluckily for everyone, he needs bait to trap a monster…

Planet of the End by Timothy X Atack

The Doctor arrives on a mausoleum world for sightseeing and light pedantry, correcting its planetary records. The resident AI has other ideas.

Deep within a tomb, something stirs. Occasus is the last resting place of a species far too dangerous to exist. And the Doctor is its way back.

Cast

Christopher Eccleston (The Doctor)
Pearl Appleby (DC Jana Lee)
Margaret Clunie (Fred)
Benjamin Davies (Douglas)
Nick Fletcher (Second Incorporation)
Jan Francis (First Incorporation)
Akshay Khanna (Sacristan Hinge / Elder Sacristan Hinge)
Damian Lynch (Artie Berger)
Mirren Mack (Marnie / The Serapheem)
Forbes Masson (Kurt)
Adrian Schiller (Maurice Le Bon)
Gemma Whelan (Zazie Vincent)

Credits

Cover Art by Tom Webster
Director Helen Goldwyn
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 Lisa McMullin, Tim Foley & Timothy X Atack

Suggested Listening

Doctor Who – The Ninth Doctor Adventures Volume 1
Doctor Who – The Ninth Doctor Chronicles
Doctor Who – Her Own Bootstraps

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