Doctor Who: Charlotte Pollard – The Further Adventuress (Big Finish Review)

India Fisher’s Charlotte Pollard was one of Big Finish‘s earliest – and most successful – Doctor Who companions, travelling with the Eighth Doctor in his earliest audio adventures from 2001 to 2007. While she has appeared with Paul McGann on other one off releases (such as 50th anniversary story The Light at the End) and even travelling alongside Colin Baker’s Sixth Doctor, this latest release from Big Finish gives us a whole new run of stories set after 2001 adventures Storm Warning and Sword of Orion.

Doctor Who: Charlotte Pollard – The Further Adventuress features four two-part stories, including a sequel to Sword of Orion, and immediately catapults the listener back to the earliest days of Big Finish, with both leads as good as they were then. The shorter story lengths also offers some pacier adventures, without feeling rushed, which means this set can be digested in smaller chunks if you don’t feel like a mammoth four-hour listening spree at once. With a focus on Charley – the adventuress (note the deliberate spelling on this set), this is a great way to recapture the magic of her previous stories as well as serving as an introduction to those listeners unfamiliar with this earlier Eighth Doctor companion.

Also, check out our Doctor Who podcast The TARDIS Crew at the We Made This Network, where we take a greater look at the Eighth Doctor and Charley Pollard at Big Finish:

 

The Review

 

 

The Mummy Speaks

Doctor Who: Charlotte Pollard – The Further Adventuress gets off to a great start with The Mummy Speaks, as the Doctor and Charley find themselves in 19th century France shortly after the defeat of Napolean. Alan Barnes’ densely-packed script is rich with playful ties to historical events and classic literature, while weaving in a delightfully gothic tale of resurrected mummies in a Parisian carnival. There’s some great satire on the whole Egyptmania craze – shades of Edgar Allen Poe’s Some Words With A Mummy fused with The Hunchback of Notre Dame, all with a Doctor Who twist, means there is a lot to enjoy about this opening tale.

On TV, this would be a visually striking story;  festivals, the Notre Dame, Egyptian relics and even a 400 pound silver back gorilla with a waistcoat and bow tie! Despite being an audio adventure, directly Ken Bentley perfectly brings this world to life, backed up by stunning sound design and gorgeously atmospheric score from Joe Kraemer. And of course, the performances are terrific, particularly Cyril Nri  as Khaset, the  mummy’s who is far more than a mindless villain.

But of course, it would be nothing without the leads. It goes without saying that Paul McGann is magnificent as the Doctor and you can tell he relishes the opportunity to play the slightly less world-weary version of more recent sets. He perfectly captures the Doctor’s sense of adventure and his connection with India Fisher is still as good as it was twenty years ago.  Fisher slips back into the role of Charley effortlessly and you could easily believe this – like all stories in the set – exist in the period around Storm WarningThe Stones of Venice and Seasons of Fear.

It’s an incredibly strong start – Doctor Who historical at its best – and a great way to reintroduce listeners to the continuing travels of the Eighth Doctor and adventuress Charlotte Pollard.

Eclipse

If you’re afraid of moths and creepy crawlies, then Eclipse is sure to set your teeth on edge. The highlight of this set, Lisa McMullin’s story transports the listener into the middle of a trip to an alien world as the Eighth Doctor and Charley find themselves pursued by flocks of moths the size of a room. It’s a tense and unsettling opening to a story that has a healthy dose of mystery and intrigue amongst the more gruesome monster moments.

A human colony on an alien world finds themselves assaulted by thousands of giant moths every night and unfortunately these local inhabitants have already claimed their first victims. Or so we think. McMullin presents this as a straight-forward monster movie and then pulls the rug under the listener more than once. The very human antagonists that are Rhoda Ofori-Attah’s (Tarper) and Chris Jarman’s (Pattos) reveal more insidious things are afoot, while Theo Solomon’s Keelda offers something of a secondary companion role as he searches for his missing brother.

Once again, McGann and Fisher are on fine form, trying to tackle the mystery of what is really happening and becoming ensnared in some truly horrifying moments; there is a scene where Charley is in a nest that would have you watching through your fingers if it was on TV. And even that isn’t the biggest surprise. When Eclipse goes full horror, it really does horror. The fate of two characters in the final act had me gasp out loud, while the appearance of creepy crawlies literally bursting from the walls is gruesome, chilling stuff.

Again, the sound design, music and performances all really sell the script and the two-part length again works, with director Ken Bentley ensuring that this is a fast-paced, taught adventure that never lets up.

The Slaying of the Writhing Mass

Perhaps the most abstract adventure of the set, The Slaying of the Writhing Mass is nonetheless an ingenious concept, doing what modern Doctor Who in particularly does so well – fusing the mundane ordinariness with the fantastical. Eddie Robson’s script sees the Doctor and Charley stuck in a temporal traffic jam with a school trip heading back in time to observe an historical event. It’s very RTD and again, it works; the Eighth Doctor often sits in the line between classic and modern Doctor Who and this is an instance where it would feel right at home in the show from 2005 onwards.

I found some of the characters a little less engaging than the previous two stories, but the performances are still good. This is a high concept tale and where it really shines is in that juxtaposition of two worlds. We have the mouthy teenager in Shiloh Coke’ Constella – a quasi companion for the Doctor time time round – and Rhoda Ofori-Attah as a highly strung teacher Alicantis, but then The Slaying of the Writhing Mass throws them into a timey-wimey mystery that sees time change irrevocably and the fate of an entire species at stake. Yasmin Mwanza rounds off the guest cast as junior agent Laorie who flits between hero and villain depending on which way the story falls.

It is also rather funny. The health dose of surreal, abstract ideas never feel silly though and you can tell everyone involved is lapping up the opportunity to throw themselves into every opportunity Robson’s script provides. The Doctor and Charley are largely separated for this two-part story, but both get to shine, with McGann in particular showing the Doctor at his very best.

Heart of Orion

I listened to Sword of Orion, the 20 year-old story this serves as a sequel to, just before jumping into the Doctor Who: Charlotte Pollard – The Further Adventuress, and you wouldn’t know they were made twenty years apart. It feels like just months since android Deeva ( Michelle Livingstone) sacrificed herself for the Doctor and Charley (there’s a little bit of a continuity error, but it’s hardly of consequence). Tapping into the much more interesting sub-plot running through Sword of Orion, this tale from Nicholas Briggs (who penned the original) focuses on the legacy of the android / human conflict over the largely overused Cybermen.

Livingstone gets to play a very different side to Deeva this time round, who has found herself resurrected following the events with the Cybermen and finding herself drawn back into the long dead war between her people and humanity. New character Dakota Bly, played by Rakie Ayola, is the human side of the story, investigating strange events taking place in the Garazone System and discovering a horrifying plan to reignite the deadly Orion War. Ayola brings real heart and passion to her performance, serving like others on previous stories, as a quasi-second companion to Paul McGann’s Doctor.

For a two-part story, it does feel slow at times; after an intriguing opening featuring Deeva’s resurrection, it takes time for events to be made clear. Fortunately the second half is much stronger as Dakota discovers some terrible truths and the Doctor and Charley face an intense reunion with their former android ally. It’s also great to see how quickly Charley has matured. Her decision to follow Deeva’s distress signal at the beginning shows that she is clearly following the path set out by the Doctor and she has some real agency in this tale, rounding off a very effective final story to this set of adventures.

The Extras

In the behind the scenes discussions for The Mummy Speaks on disk 1, writer Alan Barnes and producer Emma Haigh talk wallowing in nostalgia as they pick up the Eighth Doctor and Charley’s adventures last heard twenty years ago, getting the ‘authentic’ mummy voice, Edgar Allen Poe influences and other Parisian narratives drawn upon with the story. India Fisher is full of enthusiasm for the The Mummy Speaks and the joy of the homecoming that is this set of stories. Actor Cyril Nri (Khaset) draws on the Carry On homage within the mummy story, while Mark Elstob and John Banks discuss their multiple roles within the tale. Finally, composer Joe Kraemer talks ticking the box of scoring for every Doctor as he got the chance to produce the musical score for Paul McGann’s Doctor.

Disk 2 features interviews for Eclipse and a music suites for Doctor Who: Charlotte Pollard – The Further Adventuress, from composer Joe Kraemer. Lisa McMullin talks writing for Charley for the first time and drawing on her morbid fear of moths as inspiration for Eclipse, while producer Emma Haigh and director Ken Bentley talk the transition from the previous story into an eco horror episode, the fantastic, creepy sound design and trying not to go too gruesome for Doctor Who. Again, there are insights from the India Fisher and the guest cast on the story and their characters, including Theo Solomon (Keelda), Rhoda Ofori-Attah (Tarper) and Chris Jarman (Pattos), complete with what has now become a recurring theme in these discussions; the challenges of working in a remote recording scenario.

There’s also some lovely further discussion from Kraemer on producing music for Big Finish out of a studio in LA, which leads nicely into the ten minute music suite. The light and pretty string and flute music for The Mummy Speaks leads into a gorgeous and playful rendition of a very famous piece of music, before delivering an altogether more sombre and atmospheric finish and some delightfully ominous Egyptian motifs that wouldn’t be out of place in a classic Hammer Horror movie. It’s a terrific piece of music, fusing historical France, familiar ancient Egyptian motifs and some delightfully bombastic Doctor Who-style grans flourishes. This continues into the score for Eclipse, which starts off suitably ominously before rising into an intense, thundering mix of strings and percussion, reflecting the big, dramatic sequences that underscore the story. It is a truly cinematic score and as much a highlight of the release as the stories themselves.

India Fisher, producer Emma Haigh and director Ken Bentley lead the discussions on The Slaying of the Writhing Mass, while writer Eddie Robson talks finding inspiration from Doctor Who comic strips doing lockdown and attempting something big an stylised that also brings the mundaneness of a traffic jam and putting it in space! Once again, there’s plenty of fun insights from the cast, particularly Mark Elstob deciding that robotic Kelyan was two-feet tall, Rhoda Ofori-Attah taking on the role of authoritative teacher Alicantis, Shiloh Coke as stroppy teacher Constella and the different sides to junior agent Laorie, played by Yasmin Mwanza. And again, the discussions are rounded off with a talk about the music from composer Joe Kraemer.

In the behind the scenes discussions for Heart of Orion, director Nicholas Briggs talks about developing the world created in 2001’s Sword of Orion, unique Garazone sound effects and building on the Earth and Android war. Michelle Livingstone shares her memories of playing Deeva in the original story and the delight in returning to Big Finish. India Fisher, Rakie Ayola (Dakota Bly), Lara Lemon (Selka) and Andrew James Spooner (Kedge Ampston) all tackle the highs and lows of remote working and share their delight for Briggs’ script. Joe Kraemer, not only gives insight into the music this time round, but shares his own passion as a Doctor Who fan. Briggs and Fisher rounds things off with nostalgic memories of working on the original Eighth Doctor and Charley adventures and their long friendships that have endured.

 

Some Final Thoughts…

 

This is a superb set from Big Finish and a very welcome return for Charlotte Pollard and the Eighth Doctor. Shorter stories allow for well-paced tales and each writer brings a very different style of adventure that adds pathos and variety to Doctor Who: Charlotte Pollard – The Further Adventuress. India Fisher and Paul McGann are as great together as they were twenty years ago and are backed by some great guest performances that – coupled with Ken Bentley’s strong direction and amazing scores by Joe Kraemer – really bring this set to life.

I would argue that The Mummy Speaks and Eclipse are two of the best stories we’ve had at Big Finish in recent times, packed full of atmosphere, comedy, horror and tension. The Slaying of the Writhing Mass and Heart of Orion are still great stories, offering big concepts, moral dilemmas and bold twists and turns to keep the listener on their toes.

This is a fantastic set of stories and is already the one Big Finish release to beat for 2022. If they can maintain the same high standard, I would eagerly await more stories from Charley and the Eighth Doctor. Because this set proves, the magic is still absolutely there!

Doctor Who: Charlotte Pollard – The Further Adventuress is available to purchase at the Big Finish site here, before going on general release on the 28th February 2022.

 

Synopsis

 

Four new adventures featuring the Eighth Doctor and his Edwardian companion Charlotte Pollard.

1. The Mummy Speaks! by Alan Barnes

The Carnaval de Paris, 1841. Amid the sideshow tents, the Doctor and Charley discover something truly novel: an Ancient Egyptian mummy that speaks – despite being dead for more than 4,000 years!

But what the mummy has to say translates into terror for the TARDIS twosome… and proclaims doom for the entire world.

2. Eclipse by Lisa McMullin

The collective noun for a swarm of moths is an eclipse. And when the chittering, nightmarish Hellstrung descend from the forest canopy of planet Pteron, they threaten to snuff out the lives of the human settlers below.

Wanting to know what’s stirred up the Hellstrung, the Doctor and Charley venture deep into the woods as darkness falls.

3. The Slaying of the Writhing Mass by Eddie Robson

The Doctor and Charley become trapped in a temporal traffic jam, caused by time tourists come to witness the pivotal event in the history of the planet Ileiko: the Slaying of the Writhing Mass, the alien entity that enslaved the Ileikans in their infancy.

The legendary hero Salan killed the Mass with a single stone, setting the Ileikans free. But what was the Mass, exactly? And what if the legend was wrong?

4. Heart of Orion by Nicholas Briggs

The TARDIS intercepts a strange signal, returning the Doctor and Charley to the Garazone System – where once they had a terrifying encounter with the Cybermen, and foiled a bid to change the course of a terrible android-human war.

Now, people are going missing from all over Garazone Central. The Orion War is far from over, and the Doctor and Charley have landed at the heart of it, again!

Cast

Paul McGann (The Doctor)
India Fisher (Charlotte Pollard)
Rakie Ayola (Dakota Bly)
John Banks (Cagliostro / Onaldus)
Shiloh Coke (Constella)
Mark Elstob (Le Roi / Baron / Kelyan)
Chris Jarman (Pattos)
Lara Lemon (Selka / Klinkator / Dilly)
Michelle Livingstone (Deeva Jansen)
Yasmin Mwanza (Laorie / Assassin)
Cyril Nri (Khaset)
Rhoda Ofori-Attah (Tarper / Alicantis)
Theo Solomon (Keelda)
Andrew James Spooner (Kedge Ampston)

Production Credits

Cover Art by Caroline Tankersley
Director Ken Bentley
Executive Producer Jason Haigh-Ellery, Nicholas Briggs
Music by Joe Kraemer
Producer Emma Haigh
Script Editor Nicholas Briggs, Alan Barnes
Sound Design by Toby Hrycek-Robinson, Steve Foxon, Joe Kraemer, Naomi Clarke
Written by Lisa McMullin, Eddie Robson, Nicholas Briggs, Alan Barnes
Senior Producer David Richardson

Recommended Listening

Storm Warning

Sword of Orion

The Chimes of Midnight

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