Doctor Who: The Ninth Doctor Adventures: Back to Earth (Big Finish Review)

After a successful run of stories that kicked off with May 2021’s RavagersBig Finish are back with ‘series two’ of The Ninth Doctor Adventures. Though, given that series one only wrapped up with Old Friends in February this year, it is less the kick off of another series and more a continuation of stories featuring Christopher Eccleston’s lone Ninth Doctor in his time pre-Rose Tyler.

Doctor Who: The Ninth Doctor Adventures: Back to Earth is very much keeping to the formula we’ve seen across the previous twelve stories. Eccleston brings the magic of the Ninth Doctor to Big Finish, with three tales, but without a regular companion to tie them together. There’s no denying that hearing Eccleston’s ‘Northern’ Doctor again is a lot of fun. He has the same energy and passion he brought to the role back in 200, but the decision not to give him a proper companion feels like something of a hindrance as he continues his adventures through space and time. Each release has to work harder to make us care about the one-off characters that the Doctor interacts with on his travels.

Fortunately, two of these stories – Station to Station and Auld Lang Syne – have some great one-off companions for the Doctor to play off in Indigo Griffiths’ Saffron Windrose and Leah Brotherhead’s Mandy Litherland respectively and I would have been happy to have heard more of them. While I understand the idea of Rose being the companion that brought him back to his roots as his travelling TARDIS companion, I would like a character from these sets to stick around for more than story. The closest we’ve had has been Jayne McKenna’s Audrey in the first set, but that was a three-part opener.

To call The Ninth Doctor Adventures: Back to Earth one of the weaker of the five sets releases so far is something of a disservice. Eccleston’s Big Finish content is very entertaining and there’s always plenty to appreciate from more stories with the Ninth Doctor. But whether its the lack of companion or the absence of narrative thread  across the three stories, it stands out less than some of it’s predecessors.

Before I delve into the stories, check out our previous reviews of The Ninth Doctor Adventures from the team here at We Made This

Station to Station

Rob Valentine’s series two opener is the strongest story on the Back to Earth set, as the Doctor finds himself in a rural train station where people have become lost in time. It’s a haunting fairy tale with a monstrous enemy lurking in the shadows and director Helen Goldwyn certainly brings the tension and atmosphere to life, backed by a solid cast of lost souls.

As with the previous releases, Eccleston is fantastic, bringing the same energy he gave back in 2005. Indigo Griffiths’ Saffron Windrose makes for a great one-off companion and one that I would have been very happy to recur over further stories. Like all the ghosts on the station, she is trapped between two worlds – her wife to be and her parents that are unlikely to give her the acceptance she craves. In the face of a very supernatural threat, Station to Station is Saffron’s journey to self acceptance, finding not just the courage to face the monstrous Grimminy-Grue, but also the decision to turn back and return to Erin without the need to get the aproval she will likely never receive. Valentine weaves a  very simple but effective tale of acceptance, drawing upon the acceptance of the LGBT community in a very natural way.

The rest of the cast are great too. Patricia England brings warmth and sadness to the lost Mrs Hodkin, who finds herself trapped in an eternity of making cups of tea in the twilight world these characters face themselves in, while Ian Bartholomew’s Gordon and Shazia Nicholls’ Cate round off the ghosts that inhabit this tale. Bartholomew also perfectly captures the menace of the Grimminy-Grue, providing a terrifying foe for the Doctor to face off agaist.

Station to Station is a bittersweet tale of characters struggling to find their path in life and an atmospheric piece of horror to trap them all in. It’s a solid start to this latest set of adventures.

The False Dimitry

The historical background to writer Sarah Grochala’s tale is fascinating and complex and that could sum up The False Dimitry too. The world building of a Russia on the brink of war is vividly brought to life through the performances of the cast and direction of Helen Goldwyn. It’s a brilliant set piece for the Doctor and with the added alien twist (as all Doctor Who historical are prone to do), there’s plenty for the listener to get their metaphorical teeth into.

But the complexity of the events taking place also serve as something of a hindrance to the listener at times, with the character motivations and allegiances sometimes hard to follow. It’s a densely packed story that could have stretched out across two parts to allow it to breathe. The alien threat in particular feels second fiddle to the conflict in Moscow and The False Dimitry already has enough of a real world narrative to draw upon that this would have worked as a pure historical.

But that doesn’t take anything away from the strong performances from Eccleston and Katy Brittain’s Oksana Vladimirovna Kuznetsova, the mother of the false Tsar. She really is the highlight of this story, deeply sympathetic to the audience, provided a few laughs and going through the emotional ringer with Jack Myers’ Sasha.

The False Dimitry is a very different beast to the more emotionally-driven character pieces surrounding it, that needs more room to breath to make use of the excellent historical setting.

Auld Lang Syne

Its clear even before writer Tim Foley draws upon his own life parallels in the behind the scenes discussions, that Auld Lang Syne is a deeply personal story. With rich characterisation and strong performances from all involved, there are some big emotional beats. While I preferred the supernatural mysteries of Station to Station more, Auld Lang Syne has a compelling hook for the listener as we follow Leah Brotherhead’s Mandy and her family through the same same old house across multiple New Year’s celebrations.

It’s a tightly woven mystery box that plays on the listener’s expectations – the eyeless woman in particular, suggesting something a little more insidious than what we actually get. But the ‘timey wimeyness’ is just a trimming to the main event, the exploration of family relationships and grief. Along with Brotherhead, Wendy Craic and Hayley Tamaddon shine as warm, larger than life characters in Great Aunt Bette and Auntie Sue. All the characters feel incredibly real and compelling.

It’s a story light on the Doctor, but given that this is fifteen ‘episode’ to feature him at Big Finish, it’s more than acceptable to have him occasionally play the outside force to the main narrative. If there’s one criticism I can make with Auld Lang Syne, it’s that the plot surrounding the house is rather lacking in detail. But as a character-driven drama, Foley’s script really works.

An emotionally-driven conclusion to a fine set of stories, with another strong cast to compliment Christopher Eccleston’s engaging return as the Doctor.

 

The Extras…

There is no music suite with this release, though Howard Carter’s familiar Ninth Doctor Big Finish theme is a welcome part of the stories themselves. Approximately 45 minutes of behind the scenes interviews accompany the release on disc four. Christopher Eccleston introduces the concept for Station to Station, while director Helen Goldwyn and writer Rob Valentine draw upon the wistful fairy-tale and allegory of modern times.  Valentine draws upon personal memories of when Eccleston was playing the Doctor on TV and how that inspired his take on this story, while Eccleston draws upon the idea of the Doctor bringing lost souls together and finding power. Indigo Griffiths’  also delights in the journey Saffron takes over the course of the episode, while Patricia England (Mrs Hodkin) and Shazia Nicholls (Cate) talk their approach to playing ghosts! There’s also a fun antidote from Bartholomew, who in addition to playing the Grimminy-Grue,  auditioned for the role of the Seventh Doctor!

In the behind the scenes discussions for The False Dimitry, writer Sarah Grochala provides some comprehensive details surrounding the 17th century conflict in Russia surrounding the sons if Ivan the Terrible and the end of the Rurik Dynasty. Katy Brittain (Oksana Vladimirovna Kuznetsova) and Eccleston talk about their previous work together in a production of Macbeth, while Jack Myers (Sasha) and Alexander Arnold (Dimitry) talk the journeys of their characters as they navigate the upheaval in Russia. John Banks discusses the many roles he plays in the story and his research into Tsar Boris Fyodorovich Godunov and his guards to bring Boris and Mikhail to life.

Writer Tim Foley developed the story for Auld Lang Syne from a very personal place, with a family that reflected his own and finding writing inspiration from Russell T Davies. There are some wonderful discussions with the cast. Eccleston finds himself incredibly moved by the relationship and great love shown in this tale, while Wendy Craig draws upon the strength and big heart of Great Aunt Bette. Leah Brotherhead (Mandy), Hayley Tamaddon (Auntie Sue) and Greig Johnson (Frank) find great love and admiration for their characters and working together on set and share their own memories of first watching Doctor Who and which monsters scared them the most!

Finally Eccleston and Goldwyn reflect on the joy of working together in person and the huge difference it makes after two years of remote recording.

Some Final Thoughts…

The Ninth Doctor Adventures at Big Finish are always a highlight, with Christopher Eccleston loosing none of the energy and passion he brought to the role of the Doctor way back in 2005. Some releases are going to stand out more than others, and while there are terrific performances from all involved, Back to Earth will likely set in the good rather than great category.

But there’s still so much to enjoy. From the supernatural mysteries of Station to Station to the high stakes of The False Dimitry and the emotional journeys in Auld Lang Syne, strong scripts, direction and performances continue to flesh out the Ninth Doctor’s journey pre-Rose. I find myself longing for characters that are more than one episode guest stars, and Back to Earth has several memorable roles,  but it’s still a fun, fascinating journey we are on from the Time War and back to Doctor Who as it was when it returned to our screens after a long absence from TV.

The Ninth Doctor Adventures: Back to Earth is available from the Big Finish site here, and goes on general release on the 31st July 2022.

Synopsis

Time and again, the Doctor finds himself returning to his favourite planet. Dropping in on history or the present-day, whether it’s kings, commuters or ordinary people, he’s never met anyone who wasn’t important…

2.1 Station to Station by Robert Valentine
A deserted railway platform can be the loneliest place on Earth. But when Saffron is stranded at Underbridge station, she meets echoes of the past – and a fellow lost traveller. And the Doctor knows that something is hunting them…

2.2 The False Dimitry by Sarah Grochala
Moscow, 1605: the old Tsar is dead – but some blame unnatural forces. Perhaps the mysterious Doctor in the palace can help?

A successor advances on the Kremlin with an army, preparing the country for war. But Tsarevich Dimitry is not what he seems…

2.3 Auld Lang Syne by Tim Foley
Every December, Mandy Litherland gathers the family at Foulds House to see in the New Year. Not everyone appreciates her efforts. At least the caretaker seems friendly – if a little weird.

Mandy hopes she’ll see him again next year – but perhaps she already has…

Cast

  • Christopher Eccleston (The Doctor)
  • Alexander Arnold (Dimitry Ivanovich)
  • Sean Baker (Witherow)
  • John Banks (Tsar Boris Fyodorovich Godunov / Captain Mikhail Mikhailovich Zubov)
  • Ian Bartholomew (The Grimminy-Grue / Gordon)
  • Katy Brittain (Oksana Vladimirovna Kuznetsova / Robot)
  • Leah Brotherhead (Mandy Litherland)
  • Wendy Craig (Great Aunt Bette)
  • Patricia England (Mrs Hodkin)
  • Indigo Griffiths (Saffron Windrose)
  • Greig Johnson (Frank)
  • Jack Myers (Aleksander (Sasha) Petrovich Kuznetsov)
  • Shazia Nicholls (Cate / Erin)
  • Hayley Tamaddon (Auntie Sue)

Production Credits

  • Cover Art by Caroline Tankersley
  • Director Helen Goldwyn
  • Executive Producer Jason Haigh-Ellery & Nicholas Briggs
  • Music by Howard Carter
  • Producer David Richardson
  • Script Editor Matt Fitton
  • Sound Design by Iain Meadows
  • Written by Robert Valentine, Sarah GrochalaTim Foley

Recommended Listening

Doctor Who: The Ninth Doctor Adventures: Lost Warriors

Doctor Who: The Ninth Doctor Adventures: Old Friends

Rose Tyler: The Dimension Cannon 1

 

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