Doctor Who: The Ninth Doctor Adventures: Lost Warriors (Big Finish Review)

Christopher Eccleston’s return to the role of the Doctor for May’s Ravagers box set was much-heralded, and rightly so, after a span of 16 years since his last TV appearance (for context, the only Doctor to take longer between finishing their run on TV and reprising the role for Big Finish is Tom Baker).  Big Finish have lost no time in building up this Doctor’s catalogue of audio adventures, and here is the third box set of three stories. Check out our reviews of volumes one and two of The Ninth Doctor Adventures below:

Tom Webster’s cover art for the box set

The delight and excitement of fans greeting Eccleston’s return has been near-universal, but perhaps so has the trepidation; after all, this Doctor holds a very special place in the hearts of many.  For millions of young fans, the Ninth was their Doctor, their introduction to the wonder of the Doctor’s world; for those whose fandom began with previous Doctors, the Ninth constituted the first visual contact they’d had in years with their old friend.  And it’s probably fair to say that both groups will look back at 2005, the thrilling year of the Ninth Doctor and of Doctor Who’s triumphant return, with more than a touch of treasured nostalgia.  This reviewer certainly does, and for that reason has not heard the previous Ninth Doctor box sets.  The possibility of jading those precious memories with new adventures fronted by an older, perhaps-uncommitted Eccleston seemed too great a risk.

It deserves to be said upfront that those fears were unfounded.  ‘Performance’ seems hardly the right word for what Eccleston does here, so effortlessly does he revive the character.  Completely nimble, completely engaged, and completely real, the Ninth Doctor is back, and it’s delightful.  Furthermore, you may notice the absence of the number ‘3’ or the word ‘Volume’ on the title of this release.  While other Big Finish ranges, Doctor Who and otherwise, trade in complex long-running sagas, this box set (and presumably the others in the Ninth Doctor run) is completely standalone, each of the three episodes telling a thoroughly satisfying story of its own.  Again, this approach is reminiscent of the 2005 TV series – almost every episode forming a welcoming jumping-on point for new followers – but, more importantly, it’s hugely enjoyable.

The Hunting Season

It’s 1936 England and the Doctor arrives at Duberry Hall to find the mansion under nightly siege.  The Lord of the manor, Hawthorn (Alex Jennings), his weirdly bloodthirsty daughter Isabel (Allegra Marland) and sadistic butler Streatham (Don Gilét) assume the attackers to be local ingrates, but the Doctor – swiftly inveigling himself into their good graces via the old reliable, psychic paper, which casts him as a veteran of the Great War – suspects a less Earthly explanation.  And within the big house, there are intrigues, too – including the plight of put-upon maid Alice (Tilly Steele) and the surprisingly literary cook, Mrs Goose (Annette Badland).

“You have the eyes of someone who has fought a war.  And more than one, if I’m not mistaken”

For the first few minutes, The Hunting Season seems a little Doctor Who-generic, as a sympathetic Edwardian serving-girl is treated cruelly by her cold-hearted superiors, and a cutaway reveals zombie-ish monsters on the approach.  However, the story soon grows beyond this.  In the bonus material, writer James Kettle states that he hopes his upstairs/downstairs tale will appeal both to lovers of Downton Abbey-ish scenarios and those who “want to see it all torn down”.  The story is appropriately gleeful in simultaneously drawing and blurring the lines between higher and lower class, between human and inhuman, between expectations and outcomes, and between dainty drama and vicious comedy.  The Ninth Doctor fits in perfectly, with his gift both for forming bridges across class divides and opening chasms that can never be closed.

The major guest star for the story is Alex Jennings as Lord Hawthorn; a highly distinctive yet chameleonic actor (with Prince Charles in 2007 movie The Queen and a West End turn as Willy Wonka just two in a sea of credits), this isn’t the first time this reviewer hadn’t realised Jennings was in the cast of an audio drama until the end credits.  The blinkered Hawthorn, steeped in privilege and bigotry, yet gently sensitive to the Doctor’s wartime experience, is a vocally beguiling, hard-to-pin-down presence throughout.  Another casting coup is Eccleston’s fellow 2005 Doctor Who alumnus Annette Badland, in a new role as Mrs Goose.  Mrs Goose is a devotee of pulp Western novels and the device that the passages she reads aloud are used to illustrate and comment on the ‘real-world’ action of the story could have been clunky and overplayed, but isn’t.

The Curse of Lady Macbeth

There’s hardly a more daunting challenge a modern scribbler can consider than rewriting Shakespeare, and yet this is exactly the challenge that Lizzie Hopley set for herself in crafting The Curse of Lady Macbeth.  The writer explains in the supplementary material that she calculated that the real history behind Shakespeare’s play would provide fertile ground for Doctor Who exploration, while also being the perfect vehicle to get under the skin of her Shakespeare-loving lad actor (Eccleston’s own take on Macbeth for the RSC is available to watch on BritBox).

This is no Shakespeare pastiche, however – though the language is carefully crafted to create a sense of time and place, there’s no cod-iambic pentameter.  Instead, Hopley’s story mixes history lesson with a science fiction take on Scottish folklore and several witty swipes at the Shakespeare text to create a heady brew, and it’s alive with brilliant characterisations.

“I love a mediaeval mind.  Open to anything!”

The Doctor arrives at Glamis Castle in mediaeval Scotland and is delighted to make the acquaintance of Gruach (Neve Mackintosh), Queen to Macbeth.  More sophisticated in their outlook than one might expect, Gruach, her father Kinane (David Rintoul) and her courtier Curstag (Lucy Goldie) immediately divine the Doctor’s unearthly nature as being akin to the creature, known as a Fuath, which has been stealing away children from the castle, leaving changelings in their place.  However, they are also able to see that the Doctor may be able to help them defeat the creature.

Like most of the actors who have played the part, the Doctor is a keen Shakespearean, established since at least Tom Baker’s version as being armed with a quotation for every occasion.  It might have been expected that Eccleston would be well able to convey this enthusiasm (and so he does, throwing around the ‘thrice to thine’ quotes with glee), but what’s really wonderful here is the Doctor’s delight in finding how history differs from the Shakespeare text or unexpectedly aligns with it (such as in the presence of a difficult castle porter at Glamis).  The Doctor strikes up a touching partnership with Gruach, who seems not to be the scheming manipulator of fiction, but a fierce protector hardened further by the loss of her own children, incarnated by a typically visceral performance from Mackintosh.  In fact, with she, Rintoul and Anthony Howell (who makes a late-in-the-day appearance as Macbeth himself), there is real acting royalty portraying mediaeval Moray’s first family.

Whilst maintaining its dark and stormy backdrop, the story develops in an unexpectedly moving direction, while maintaining a thread of humour throughout.  It’s also worth mentioning Lulach, Gruach’s mute son.  To reveal too much would be to spoil things, but given that this is an audio drama, the handling of the character is inspired.

Monsters in Metropolis

Fritz Lang’s silent masterpiece, Metropolis (1927) is one of the most important works of futuristic cinema.  Its sleek femme fatale robot, Maria (Brigitte Helm) is the standard against which all man (or woman)-in-suit mechs must be judged, her unmistakeable design echoed by droids from C-3PO to Robocop.  It’s also a stand against excessive mechanisation, a criticism of the class divide, a hymn to humanity that should have been heard loudly in a Europe bruised following the First World War.  Instead the film was largely treated as a Communistic embarrassment, misunderstood and heavily re-cut by its distributors, its director soon fleeing to Hollywood to escape the rise of Nazism.  The Doctor is a fan.  He’s always wanted to visit the set and meet Fritz Lang.  In 1925 Berlin he gets to do just that, only to find that something is wrong.  There’s no sign of Brigitte Helm or Maria.  In their place is a Cyberman.

“No emotions, no feelings.  That’s rule number one if you’re a Cyberman.”

John Dorney’s story pushes an already impressive box set to new heights.  In some ways, the story is familiar.  As the writer admits in the extras, it’s deliberate evocation of the ‘celebrity historical’ story popular in TV Doctor Who since 2005; it’s also a take on the frequent ‘Doctor visits key moment in history only to find that the Daleks/Cybermen were involved’ trope.  There are several similarities with Mark Gatiss’ 2001 Eighth Doctor audio Invaders from Mars, in its recreation of a milestone production in science fiction and the Doctor letting loose his inner film fanboy on encountering a legendary director (here he hilariously drops hints about Lang’s as-yet-unmade 1931 thriller M, just as the Eighth Doctor shouted “Don’t let them edit Ambersons!” at an uncomprehending Orson Welles).

But Dorney’s story is more focused, with a serious, dark core underneath the clever references and fan service (the writer is clearly aware that, given that this is the Ninth Doctor’s first full encounter with the Cybermen, a weight of expectation rests on this adventure).  Like Metropolis, it has a social conscience and a sense of the future.  The shadow of Nazism hangs over it all.  A sensitive decision has been made not to cartoon the story with fake German accents; instead the actors all speak in a modulated RP peppered with ‘Herr’ and ‘Frau’, with here and there a slight tick in delivery which might suggest the wounded Weimar dignity.  The result is that everyone feels real, and the story finds affecting truth in the most unexpected places.

The origin of the Cyberman is a fun mystery.  With Nick Wilton’s exasperated Lang and Helen Goldwyn’s long-suffering production manager Anna, Eccleston and the Doctor find endless fun interplay as the Doctor charms his way into the centre of the action.  For much of the way, this is breezy Doctor Who with great local colour, but it becomes much more; there are several types of monster in this Metropolis.  The final scene, hinting at real-world horrors to come, is bone-chilling.  “There are some things I can’t stop”, says the Doctor.  Dorney gets a lot of hype.  As probably Big Finish’s premiere Doctor Who writer, he can sometimes seem overexposed, his missteps magnified.  But this story shows what he can do at full power.  It’s a masterpiece, worthy of Lang.

Some Closing Thoughts

There are strong thematic links between all the stories in Lost Warriors.  Each features a warrior or warriors separated from their natural place; the title of the box set is apt.  Additionally, all the stories are Earth historicals, and two of them feature key father-daughter relationships and homes under siege.  However, within this thematic unity, there is a great diversity of tone, style and even the character types within the supporting casts.  Even though they all fall within the staple Doctor Who format of ‘historical adventure plus sci-fi monsters’, none of the episodes is at all stale or predictable.  It’s a great showcase for the versatility of the series.

Eccleston and the producers have emphasised their intention to portray the joie de vivre of the Ninth Doctor – somewhat at odds with this most damaged of incarnations – and this might have provoked worries that the Ninth Doctor’s audio run would not gel with his portrayal on TV.  However, like the doubts described at the start of this review, such worries are thoroughly dispelled by this production.  Hints at the Doctor’s war-traumatised past are dropped consistently, in every episode, but dropped lightly.  The difference is in the deftness of touch.  Eccleston has criticised his own TV performance as veering too jarringly between comedy and drama, and perhaps he has taken upon himself to correct this; here, he’s entirely at ease, and thanks to artful direction and writing, the shifts in tone are effortless.

With Eccleston in genuine “Ask me anything! I’m on fire!” mode and given scripts and a supporting cast to match him, it’s tempting to say that the Ninth Doctor has never been better.  This is perfect Doctor Who.

Doctor Who: The Ninth Doctor Adventures: Lost Warriors is available to purchase from the Big Finish site here, and goes on general release on the 31st January 2022.

Extras

The fourth disc is given over to behind-the-scenes material on all three stories.  Christopher Eccleston, director Barnaby Edwards, all the writers, and many of the supporting cast are interviewed.  It’s customary for Big Finish’s ‘extra features’ to overflow with enthusiasm, but given material like this, it’s only to be expected that the resulting production was a joyful one.  This is despite the fact that lockdown meant that most of the actors had to be recorded remotely (Eccleston and sound recordist Wilfredo Acosta are candid about the difficulties of this, though Eccleston is simultaneously grateful that he at least got to record in studio, and that he is able to do any acting work at all in such a time of crisis).

It’s especially impressive to realise that the listener has been transported to, among other locations, the blasted heaths of mediaeval Scotland by a bunch of separated actors recording in their home closets.  Among the testimony of many effusive cast members, it’s particularly nice to hear the delight with which Nicholas Briggs, for once liberated from his producer/composer/writer/director hats and only present to voice the Cybermen in Monsters in Metropolis, considers the unique take on the creatures presented by John Dorney’s script.

Having thorough ‘making of’ material released with the episodes concerned has long been a Big Finish standard, but it also feels like another return to 2005, when a new episode would be swiftly followed by the tell-all of Doctor Who Confidential.  And when the episodes in question are so strong, having quick access to the inspiration behind them is entirely welcome.

Synopsis

Three brand new adventures featuring Christopher Eccleston as the Ninth Doctor.

The Doctor meets many strangers on his travels. Some are destined to end up friends, while others were always going to become his enemies. And some were once warriors, with reasons of their own to remain hidden from the universe…

3.1 The Hunting Season by James Kettle

Duberry Hall is under siege, as aliens maraud through the estate. It’s a frightful business, and as Lord Hawthorn battles the Fleshkin, the Doctor finds new friends below stairs. Can he convince the household to unite to save itself?

3.2 The Curse of Lady Macbeth by Lizzie Hopley

The TARDIS is drawn to Scotland again – to the troubled Kingdom of Moray, and its Queen Gruach. Or, as the Doctor knows her better, Lady Macbeth. While some believe she is the cause of her people’s woes, she may yet become their saviour.

3.3 Monsters in Metropolis by John Dorney

Berlin, 1927. The making of a science fiction legend. But death stalks the film set and history is not what the Doctor expects it to be. And this new ‘Machine Man’ is a more terrifying vision of humanity’s future than Fritz Lang had in mind…

Cast

  • Christopher Eccleston (The Doctor)
  • Annette Badland (Mrs Goose)
  • Peter Bankolé (Dieter Jovanovic)
  • Nicholas Briggs (Cyberman)
  • Raj Ghatak (Olaf Richter)
  • Don Gilét (Streatham)
  • Lucy Goldie (Curstag / Lulach)
  • Helen Goldwyn (Anna Dreyfus)
  • Anthony Howell (Macbeth / Siward)
  • Alex Jennings (Lord Hawthorn)
  • Allegra Marland (Isabel)
  • Neve McIntosh (Gruach)
  • David Rintoul (Kinade / Priest / Bishop)
  • Maggie Service (Sorscha / The Fuath)
  • Tilly Steele (Alice / Fleshkin 1)
  • Nick Wilton (Fritz Lang)

Credits

  • Cover Art by Tom Webster
  • Director Barnaby Edwards
  • 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 John Dorney Lizzie Hopley James Kettle

Suggested Listening

The Ninth Doctor Adventure: Respond To All Calls

The Ninth Doctor Adventures: Ravagers

The Eighth Doctor Adventures: Invaders From Mars

TD Velasquez is a writer, film fan, author of the blog Life Is About Fiction (@LifeIsAboutFic), and a host on the horror-flavoured British podcast, --And Now The Podcast Starts!! (@AndNowPodcast)

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