Doctor Who – The Eleventh Doctor Chronicles Volume 2 (Big Finish Review)

If there’s one word to sum up the second volume of Eleventh Doctor Chronicles from Big Finish, it’s fresh. Here are four completely new stories for the Eleventh Doctor, with no returning companions or antagonists, and only two of the four writers – Doris V Sutherland and Christopher Cooper – have written for Big Finish before.

Jacob Dudman’s uncannily accurate take on the role originated by Matt Smith has moved beyond the realm of impression, if it ever was only that, and now become a fully-fledged performance, one that captures all the tics and whims of Smith’s incarnation. It’s no exaggeration that if you weren’t aware there was another actor behind the mic, you’d be hard pressed to tell it wasn’t Matt Smith reprising the role. So let’s dive in.

The Evolving Dead

First up, it’s Doctor Who does zombies in The Evolving Dead. Doris V Sutherland’s tale, like each of these four episodes, allows for Dudman to shine in the lead role. The Doctor, travelling solo, lands on a space station full of undead zombies, including Senior Research Assistant Babs (Ayesha Antoine) and her clingy, gaslighting ex-boyfriend Max (Tom Alexander), who are not only undead themselves but also going through a messy breakup.

The plot is something of a slow burn as the mystery builds in parallel to the relationship breakdown subplot, making this an interesting fusion of zombie outbreak and relationship drama. The horror is more psychological than the genre’s usual body horror and gore; The Evolving Dead is more concerned with the interplay between Babs, who deserves much more in a partner, and the decidedly unpleasant Max.

Dudman captures with panache the Eleventh Doctor’s quirky vocal mannerisms, and Sutherland provides some laugh-out-loud lines that offset the whole walking-undead storyline. In fact, the three guest actors – Antoine, Alexander and Avita Jay as the robot intelligence Evo – play their roles fairly straight, giving the Doctor the chance to provide some levity and light relief from the heady events happening around them.

There are only a few links to wider Doctor Who continuity here – an oblique reference to the Cybermen, and to the Doctor deleting himself from databases across the universe – making The Evolving Dead a fresh and mythology-light showcase for Dudman’s remarkable performance. If there’s quibble with the story, it’s a pedant’s quibble: the version of the theme tune (Matt Smith’s first) doesn’t match the Doctor’s outfit on the cover art (his second). But regardless, hearing it in your ears is truly glorious.

The Day Before They Came

From zombies on a space station to a breezy seaside town in 1986, and the prospect of an alien invasion. The second story offers a change in scenery, with quasi-contemporary Earth the backdrop for another character-fuelled adventure for the Doctor and his capable companion.

Kayla (Jo Woodcock), an alien historian and researcher – supposedly – is stranded on Earth and waits for the next invading alien force to come along and take her home. The Doctor encounters her undercover in the guise of a 16-year-old schoolgirl, considered strange by fellow students for her obsession with scientific gizmos that are far beyond the technological capabilities of 1986, and are disguised as regular objects like pocket calculators. The two of them team up to scope out another nearby alien presence, the Spongiform, played by director and voice whizz Nicholas Briggs, who successfully differentiates this new entity from the dozens (hundreds?) of others he has previously voiced both onscreen and at Big Finish.

With much of the action set on the beachfront or inside a café, The Day Before They Came is low-key, contained and all about the Doctor and Kayla. Daniel Blythe’s script is just as funny as the opener, with fun callbacks to the Doctor’s television escapades (a fez, jammie dodgers), and Dudman might be even more spot-on, conveying all the character’s giddy childishness mixed with austere wisdom.

This episode, as with the others in this set, unfortunately lacks the kind of high-energy score or a proper musical theme for this Doctor, which seems a shame given how important Murray Gold’s music was to the television show. Admittedly, Big Finish might be holding out for if they ever get to do The Eleventh Doctor Adventures one day – and a boisterous score might distract from the pensive little tale being told in The Day Before They Came.

The Melting Pot

The third story, scripted by Christopher Cooper, is initially reminiscent of the television episode The Rings of Akhaten: the Doctor lands on a bustling alien world, comes to the aid of a young girl/creature (in this case the rodent-like Elix, played by Milly Thomas), and proceeds through a story imbued with themes of faith and devotion. But what might otherwise have been a whimsical tale soon exposes a dark undercurrent – similar to how The Rings of Akhaten transitions from an upbeat romp through an alien market to a study in grief and loss.

The Indigenous people of Piir are having a bad time. Their young are disappearing and their people are routinely exploited by visiting outsiders. One such individual is Preacher Stem, who says he’s there to provide solace and spiritual guidance, but whose subterfuge is clear. The plot is straightforward but earnestly told; Doctor, true to his name, sets out to expose the preacher’s true intentions. For Stem is a con man masquerading as a religious figure, out to make a profit by stoking the fires of uprising among the locals and scare off any other interested off-world parties from arriving, thereby leaving him free to reap the planet’s riches. Nicholas Asbury is a solid choice for a role that demands both ingratiating charm and bubbling menace in equal parts.

The Melting Pot is a surprisingly dark tale of a people exploited and a charlatan uncovered, one that touches on the legacy of colonialism in thought-provoking ways. And Dudman, as ever, keeps up the good work in the lead role, helping the Doctor appear fully realised in the listener’s imagination.

A Tragical History

There’s a pleasing variety to these four stories: the opener is outer-space science fiction; the second story a contemporary, Earth-bound adventure; then we get a trip to an alien world; and now a foray into history to close out the set. The ensuing tale contains echoes of Nightmare in Silver in its depiction of the Doctor talking to a separate manifestation of himself – one of the many psychological showdowns endured by this incarnation – and perhaps a touch of The Crimson Horror in its evocation of a period setting.

For A Tragical History is a wonderfully vivid depiction of eighteenth-century London from writer Tessa North, augmented by Lee Adams’ atmospheric sound design: dank prison cells, clacking horse and carts, creaky old doors, and so on. In terms of plot, it’s again rather pared back and personal, with the Doctor taking notice of prisoners being unfairly incarcerated in a debtors’ prison, where apparitions are goading inmates into doing their bidding and tempting them to join a communal intelligence. Of the four stories, this might be the one best suited to featuring some kind of returning antagonist; as series seven’s big bad, the Great Intelligence, for instance, would fit nicely into this story considering the psychological nature of the alien entity.

But The Eleventh Doctor Chronicles Volume 2 is no worse off for the lack of returning elements; in fact, this freshness is the release’s key appeal. These adventures are fun and vibrant, lacking none of the high production values that go into every Big Finish release. They serve as a worthy showcase Dudman’s Doctor and as a taster for the future. Producer Alfie Shaw has teased plans to create a new, audio-original era for this Doctor, as Big Finish has previously done with other incarnations, making it an extremely exciting time to be a fan of the Eleventh Doctor.

Doctor Who – The Eleventh Doctor Chronicles Volume 2 was released in September 2021. It will be exclusively available to buy from the Big Finish website until 30 November 2021, and on general sale after this date.

Extras

“I really enjoy the Eleventh Doctor – he’s kind of the modern era’s Tom Baker, I’d say.”

Alfie Shaw kicks off interviews with cast and crew – attached to the end of each story – by explaining the benefits of making the adventures full cast rather than propped up by narration. This new direction, suggested by the BBC, is one Big Finish have run with, enabling them to tell stories with a wider cast of characters and, as Shaw tantalisingly hints, set up a serialised arc for the Eleventh Doctor in future releases.

Jacob Dudman shares how the new format has allowed him greater creative freedom to improvise and match the character’s unpredictability and eccentricity through his own performance. Nicholas Briggs praises Dudman’s knack for inhabiting, rather than simply impersonating, the highly distinctive role.

We also hear from each of the four writers, who unpack their influences and approaches to the scripts. Two of the four stories were recorded during lockdown, which means we also hear about the recording setups of different actors. Lee Adams also breaks down the process of creating the soundscape for a given scene. And there’s a lot more to enjoy in each suite of interviews – far too much to cover here, so get listening!

Synopsis

The Evolving Dead by Doris V Sutherland

The dead stalk the corridors of research station Romeo. For a technician (dead) and her ex-boyfriend (also dead), the Doctor’s their only chance to escape. For the rest of the crew, he’s their only chance to feed.

The Day Before They Came by Daniel Blythe

In the shabby seaside town of Bayview, Kayla Worthington is sitting on the beach waiting for an alien invasion. Her patience is rewarded when an alien arrives, although he doesn’t seem to be invading. He’s called the Doctor, and he wants to buy her a cup of tea.

The Melting Pot by Christopher Cooper

Arriving on Piir to sample the local cuisine, the Doctor finds a society wildly different from the one he remembers. With violence brewing on the streets, the Doctor will have to get to the bottom of what has gone wrong on Piir, before the world tears itself apart.

A Tragical History by Tessa North

To most of the inmates in Hythe Prison, life is miserable. However, some are living out their idealised lives within its walls. Amongst the dank conditions, the Doctor is about to uncover the key to everything he could ever desire.

Cast

Jacob Dudman (The Doctor)
Laura Aikman (Sarah Ellison)
Tom Alexander (Maxwell / Headshot)
Ayesha Antoine (Babs)
Nicholas Asbury (Preacher Stem)
Joe Barnes (Ray)
Nicholas Briggs (Spongiform)
Jacob Daniels (Lee)
Bethan Dixon Bate (Lady Dora Swift)
Joe Jameson (Arvin)
Avita Jay (Evo / Eleanor Pearce)
Jenny Lee (Eliza Smith)
Paul Panting (Ilyani / Bailiff)
Jeany Spark (Gonch / Piir Mother)
Milly Thomas (Elix)
Venice Van Someren (Mary Wainwright)
Jo Woodcock (Kayla Worthington)

Credits

Music by Ioan Morris
Written by Doris V Sutherland, Christopher Cooper, Tessa North & Daniel Blythe
Senior Producer David Richardson
Cover Art by Tom Webster
Director Nicholas Briggs
Executive Producer Nicholas Briggs & Jason Haigh-Ellery
Narrated by Jacob Dudman
Producer Alfie Shaw
Script Editor Scott Handcock
Sound Design by Lee Adams

Suggested Listening

Doctor Who – The Eleventh Doctor Chronicles Volume 1
Doctor Who – Regeneration Impossible

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