Doctor Who: The Year of Martha Jones (Big Finish Review)

Having first made a return to the world of Doctor Who with 2020’s Big Finish Torchwood release Dissected, Freema Agyeman stars in this latest Doctor Who spin-off, set during her tenure as companion in Doctor Who series three. Joining her is Adjoa Andoh as her mother Francine in a three-part adventure set during the Earth’s invasion by the Master and the Toclafane.

No matter how decisive some found the series three finale Last of the Time Lords (much of this comes down to the decision to take the Doctor out of the equation for most of the episode), there is no denying that it brings Martha’s tenure as a full time companion to a dramatic end. Martha found herself stranded on Earth as humanity was decimated at the end of The Sounds of Drums and these three stories give us a snippet of her year-long journey to make the surviving human race believe in the idea of the Doctor and turn them against the Master.

The possibilities were endless. So does The Year of Martha Jones deliver on that promise? Joining me to discuss this latest Doctor Who spin-off is my 15-year old son Ben, the world’s biggest Doctor Who fan and my co-host on We Made This podcast The TARDIS Crew.

The Last Diner by James Goss

 

Baz Greenland

While each story has its own central narrative, The Year of Martha Jones is very much a three-part adventure and James Goss’s opening ‘episode’ sets up characters and themes that will run throughout the release. The Last Diner is essentially a scene setter. The world has been devastated by the Toclafane and Martha is travelling the globe telling stories of her adventures with the Doctor in the hope that it will rally support against the Master. Humanity is grappling with huge loss and we see moments in this story, like discovering the joy of packets of plan noodles and reminiscing about Ramen or the simple pleasures of fresh, running water that effectively instils the horror of this world and the brief joys people can still find within it. Given that it will become an alternate reality for all but Martha and her family, there is the opportunity to go really dark and nasty with this storyline. Goss wisely keeps the horrors at bay and instead looks at the psychological impact of this new world. It’s grim stuff, for the most part, but it captures the horror of this setting.

It’s a strong cast. As a big Star Trek: The Next Generation fan, I was excited to see what Marina Sirtis would bring to this set. She has gravitas and warmth as the struggling owner of the diner Karen, though I was disappointed that there wasn’t more of her, given her presence on the cover.  Ewart James Walters’ Tucker has a gorgeous southern accent and charm that really elevates the Us-setting of the story. Serin Ibrahim has a real energy and endearing quality as Martha’s old friend Holly, who reconnects with the hero of the story half way across the world. Freema Agyeman has terrific chemistry with all three of them, which really lifts the story. Without such strong performances and writing, the story would fall flat.

The Last Diner also sees Martha reunited with her mother Francine, who has miraculously escaped the Valiant. Adjoa Andoh brings the same cold hostility with saw with Francine in the series, and creates an underlying tension as she seeks to undermine what Martha is doing. It’ a theme that runs through the set and, Freema and Adjoa effortlessly pick up the daughter-mother banter, with all its frustrations and disappointments, that we witnessed in series three of Doctor Who. If there is one gripe here, it’s that the tension feels a little too obvious, which undermines some of the reveals in the final story. But given that we are in the midst of the horrors that won’t be resolved until the climax of Last of the Timelords, it kind of works. They are still the mother and daughter we saw in earlier episodes pre-Master.

It is a good job that the character work is so good, because if there’s one big downside to the story – and the set in general – it’s that very little seems to really happen. This isn’t the globe-trotting adventures of Martha we heard about in season three. No horrors of Japan, though they are alluded to here, but a handful of days on the US west code during the year of Hell Martha experienced. While the friendship with Holly is rekindled and the tense reunion with Francine offers drama, there is little momentum to the narrative. It rests solely on Freema’s shoulders and in this, she delivers. As a narrator of tales gone by with the Doctor, we hear her courage, conviction and passion laid clear for all to see. And amid the bleakness of the setting and the bleakness of the ending, it is Martha that really shines.

 

Ben Greenland

It’s not often I hate a Doctor Who story. But this…

Martha is an underrated companion, and it IS lovely to see Freema make her return to the show properly bar Torchwood: Dissected last year. But oh how I wish it was a somewhat decent return… The Last Diner is a waste. An entire waste. The whole set is boredom personified and when listening you realise that, in retrospect, the whole idea behind the boxset is just so boring. There’s nothing you can DO with it. And as someone who really disliked the Martha stuff in Last of the Time Lords (an episode I dislike anyway) this isn’t good. It’s essentially a Companion Chronicle with a few extra cast members, and yet the material is non-existent.

Other than Freema slipping back into the role of Martha Jones with ease, and a little bit of conflict with her mum, there is NOTHING going for this. I was so bored throughout the whole thing and just wanted it to end. The side cast are utterly wasted also. Marina Sirtis of Star Trek fame is in this and she’s on the box art and yet she has absolutely zero agency. I could barely make her out, and worse still the episode description mentions her as Martha’s old friend – yet the episode chooses to ACTUALLY focus on her OTHER friend, who’s a better character anyway.

The plot just isn’t there, and all we get is Martha telling a slightly more interesting story while side characters argue amongst themselves and this couldn’t sustain Half an Hour, never mind a FULL hour. I’ll admit there’s a slight shock at the end but even that had no impact for me because I just didn’t care about anything happening here. It does the worst thing possible for a Doctor Who story and that’s being so criminally dull.

 

Silver Medal by Tim Foley

 

Baz Greenland

The weakest of the three stories, though by no means bad (I clearly liked it better than my son Ben), Silver Medal sees Martha, Francine and Holly encounter a resistance camp and uncover just how cruel humanity can be. It’s not a new story; you only have to look at any post-apocalyptic film or TV series to see humans rising to a position of power and stamping their authority on others. We’re by no means in The Walking Dead‘s Governor or Negan territory here, but Lorelei King’s Jessie makes for a ruthless foil for Martha. It’s a solid character, but I can’t help but feel that Jessie and the resistance camp where only winners succeed, takes precedence over far more exciting narrative opportunities available. As with much of The Year of Martha Jones, I felt like the most exciting stories were before or after it.

Where it really succeeds though, is in Martha’s stories and these give real energy to Silver Medal, as they did to The Last Diner. Freema captures the Doctor’s energy to a T and Ellie Darvill’s Baby Lizzie might feel like a bit of a caricature, but she is a lot of fun too. The mystery of the mine and the aliens within heightens the tension, even if the present-day setting lacks the same energy. The cast are all solid too, particularly  Chandler’s Marion, who finds herself out of her comfort zone as she struggles to adapt her skills to perilous situation at hand.

The bickering between Martha and Francine worked in The Last Diner, but feels more tired here – or too obvious that something is ‘wrong’. However, it is not as pronounced as the other stories and where Foley really succeeds is in making the most of the ‘ruthless ambition in a post-apocalyptic landscape narrative’ and weaves in several credible threats. The mysterious alien allies, wild bears in the camp’s parameter and the constant threat of discovery from the Toclafane add plenty of tension. As with The Last Diner, there is something of a cruel twist in the conclusion of this story, which sets up the far more dramatic Deceived.

Ben Greenland

I’ll give this story a higher rating as it’s not quite as dull as the previous one, but this is not good either. Again, the same basic idea rehashed of Martha telling a story while people interact in the intervals. The side cast here is admittedly better and does something for the story but ultimately this goes nowhere. The whole thing is encased in Martha being angry at the system used for this rebel camp by their leader Jessie and yet all she does is verbally complain for the hour and at one point manages to get everyone to have dinner. It was at this point I knew this set was a failure and I wasn’t sure why I was bothering.

Again, Freema’s good, Andoh’s good but it still has nothing going for it. I don’t know what else to really say here. I wanted it to end and just wished that something interesting would happen, but alas it didn’t. I will give it a point for the ending leading into the final episode with some promise at least…

 

Deceived by Matt Fitton

 

Baz Greenland

There is a sense going into Deceived, that The Year of Martha Jones would have worked better if all three parts were condensed into a single, or two-part story, allowing for other adventures set during the year-long Toclafane occupation of Earth. For all the strong character work, very little has actually happened by the time Martha, Francine and Holly arrive in Las Vegas and fall foul of the trap left by Julie Graham’s Miss Beecham. Two episode’s of world building followed by one dramatic race against time makes this set feel disproportionally slow at times.

Fortunately, there’s plenty to enjoy in Matt Fitton’s script, which gives Martha some tangible human villains to face off against, a satisfying reveal Francine’s constant putting down of Martha’s plan, some worthy heroics from Martha’s ‘companion’ Holly and plenty of tense moments involving the Toclafane. While John Simm’s Master is understandably absent, his presence is keenly felt at times and there is a strong sense of dread as Martha discovers what us really happening. Credit also has to be given to Clare Louise Connolly’s delightfully twisted Toclafane voice; both child-like and blood thirsty, she captures the spirit of the Toclafane as seen in season three perfectly.

I particularly enjoyed the rivalry between Gethin Anthony’s Mr Strand and Graham’s Miss Beecham, who offer a far more ugly side to humanity than Jessie did in the previous story. Ultimately, it is Graham that shines, both in her ruthless zeal to hunt down Martha and her control over the Toclafane. I would have liked her to have been more of a recurring villain, perhaps hunting Martha across the globe, if the set had offered something more epic than the stories we eventually got. But she gets  a decent arc, once her true motives were revealed at the end of the last story.

It’s a strong end to a somewhat frustrating set of stories. I can’t fault the performances, the individual writing or the direction and Freema Agyeman is great as Martha, one of modern Doctor Who‘s most underrated companions. If this was the first of four sets, like The Robots, the lack of scope might be less troublesome. There would still be the promise of more exciting things to come. But for the overall direction,  I can’t help but feel this would have worked better as four individual stories set during the long year between The Sound of Drums and Last of the Timelords. As it stands, it feels like a mere footnote that doesn’t offer us anything we didn’t know about her journey in Doctor Who‘s third season. And that is a missed opportunity.

 

Ben Greenland

This is by far the best episode in the set. It’s still average, although I did find myself a smidgen more engaged with it. This episode does what the other two were crying out for and gives us a villain. Here we have two of the Master’s agents and we dispense with the boring rebel groups for an actual story.

There is plenty of action to latch on to here, but I still felt a bit put out. It’s quite telling how the formula of the set was discarded after two episodes, because it had already exhausted the steam it barely had to begin with. Julie Graham shines here. She easily outplays Martha and Francine and I just wish she was in the other episodes to some capacity (not counting her tiny cameo at the end of the last one to set up this episode).

The twist of this entire set was spoilt for me by a promotional picture leaked a while back that had slipped through marketing teams, so that ultimately did nothing for me despite being a nice idea to play with. However, the real star of this set is the Toclafane. Heavily featured here, they drip with joy and zaniness and bloodlust and are an actually enjoyable presence in and amongst nothing else fun, and I’d go as far to say I prefer this iteration to that we saw on TV back in 2007.

I don’t blame the writers for the incredible failure presented over three hours. No, I more blame the idea in the first place. The Year that Never Was is ripe for a spinoff and it’s easy to see why Big Finish have done it. And yet, it’s just boring. I’d much rather follow the Master’s antics on the Valiant than this and so when the Master makes a silent cameo here I’m frustrated they couldn’t get John Simm to record a line or two. To my knowledge this was recorded around the same time he did Masterful so why not? Just a broken cherry on a flattened cake.

Martha is a good character and I just wish she could have got something worth the time. This is probably my least favourite release of the year from Big Finish and indeed Doctor Who media in general and just marks such a disappointing end to what has been a fantastic year for Big Finish

 

A mixed bag overall – and certainly one of the more decisive releases we have reviewed, despite a great lead performance from Freema Agyeman. The Year of Martha Jones is available exclusively at the Big Finish site here, before going on general release on the 28th February 2022.

 

Extras

Producer David Richardson and director Scott Handcock introduce the concept and development of this story and how it evolved over a five-year period and the difficulties of getting Freema Agyeman after she became so successful in her career. In the extras for The Last Diner, Freema talks finding Martha’s voice again after such a long absence from the role. Marina Sirtis describes Karen as a soccer mum with attitude, and her desire to become involved with the Doctor Who franchise, having been a life-long fan. Star Trek fans will also get a kick of her reflections on her involvement with that sci-fi franchise, while Freema comments on the parallels between Doctor Who and Star Trek and the opportunity to work with ‘local girl’ Marina! Just as fun is Ewart James Walters (Tucker) name dropping friend Sylvester McCoy and his own memories of watching Doctor Who.

In the extras for Silver Medal, Scott Handcock talks how human nature can be split in the face of trauma, while there’s also great insights from the cast involved – Lorelai King, Roman Summers and Judith Chandler – on the characters they play. There’s also some nice reflections on the power of stories and the joy of recording these audio adventures from the cast, which is clearly conveyed into the performances we hear.

Finally, the extras for Deceived sees Adjoa Andoh reminisce about playing Francine after 12 years and her relationship as Freema’s second mother, celebrating her discovery as an actress by Russell T Davies and her subsequent success. Julie Graham discusses her previous Doctor Who-related appearance in The Sarah Jane Adventures, while she – and Freema – discuss the impact of what it means to exist in a war-torn world tap into those ideas through their performance. Again, the theme of escapism through stories, running through these discussions, reflects the powerful drama presented through these three tales.

 

Synopsis

The Master has won. He has stolen humanity’s future and imprisoned his nemesis, ruling the Earth with an army of deadly Toclafane.

But Martha Jones escaped, and now walks the Earth, telling stories of the Doctor. Above all else, humanity needs hope. And Martha will carry that hope across the world…

1.1 The Last Diner by James Goss

Martha arrives on the west coast of the US and finds an old friend waiting to make contact.

A desperate group gathers for her stories. But when Francine arrives, escaped from the Valiant, she isn’t so keen to hear about the Doctor…

1.2 Silver Medal by Tim Foley

Martha journeys to a forest camp, hidden from Toclafane patrols. It’s somewhere she’s been before with the Doctor, more than a century ago – where the silver mines held a deadly secret.

The resistance are ready to risk everything, but there’ll be no prize for second place.

1.3 Deceived by Matt Fitton

The Master’s minions are competing to please him. And agents Beecham and Strand believe nothing would please him more than finding the Doctor’s stray companion.

As Martha and friends hide out in Vegas, the Toclafane arrive. How many levels of deception must be uncovered for Martha to reach the truth?

 

Cast

Freema Agyeman (Martha Jones)
Adjoa Andoh (Francine Jones)
Marina Sirtis (Karen)
Gethin Anthony (Mr Strand)
Judith Chandler (Marion)
Clare Louise Connolly (Toclafane)
Ellie Darvill (Baby Lizzie)
Julie Graham (Miss Beecham / Sovari)
Serin Ibrahim (Holly)
Lorelei King (Jessie)
Ronan Summers (Dustin / Jimmy)
Ewart James Walters (Tucker)

Production Credits

Cover Art by Simon Holub
Script Editor Scott Handcock, Matt Fitton
Written by Tim Foley, Matt Fitton, James Goss
Director Scott Handcock
Executive Producer Jason Haigh-Ellery, Nicholas Briggs
Music by Howard Carter
Producer David Richardson
Sound Design by Howard Carter

 

Recommended Listening

Torchwood: Dissected

Tales from New Earth

Doctor Who: The Tenth Doctor Adventures Volume 01

 

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