Big Finish’s fourth Dark Eyes season finished that series of box sets with aplomb, and it was hard in many ways to see how the next Eight Doctor series could better it.
Well, I can tell you that the audio drama company has worked out the answer. It’s an answer of many parts, but an answer it is, because the recently released Doom Coalition volume 1 is absolutely awesome.
This first of many Doom Coalition box sets stars Paul McGann as the Doctor, with Nicola Walker as companion and mopey erstwhile botwrangler (I’m going to use that phrase till someone acknowledges it’s great) Liv Chenka. Also introduced is Hattie Morahan as new companion Helen Sinclair, and the excellent Mark Bonnar (late of The Rebel Flesh/The Almost People off of the telly) as The Eleven.
As is now de rigeur for Big Finish boxsets, DC1 comprises four linked hour-long stories. Matt Fitton’s The Eleven details the escape of a Hannibal-esque-and-then-some Gallifreyan criminal, and his attempt to take over the Citadel in order to rain chaos down on the Time Lords. Second up is John Dorney’s The Red Lady, a story that does for art what Jaws does for goldfish. Third we have Marc Platt’s excellent The Gallileo Trap in which the Doctor is summoned – or not – by the scientist to investigate a new plague outbreak and marauding monsters. And closing the set is Edward Collier’s The Satanic Mill, in which the Doctor tracks down his nemesis of the month on a vast Victorian factory floating in the deep of space.
So, how have Big Finish managed to better the excellent Dark Eyes series? Well, basically they’ve done a lot of individual things very well…
First off is the Eleven, the eponymous Time Lord criminal at the heart of Fitton’s opening story. He is a brilliant creation: a Time Lord who’s individual incarnations’ personalities remain with and within him as he regenerates into the next. Multiple-personality disorder as could only happen to a Time Lord – one of those ideas that’s so effective yet so simple that one wonders why it’s never been thought of before. And Mark Bonnar’s performance is absolutely perfect for it, with each personality distinct and believable, from the monstrous Two through to the Machiavellian Eleven, via eight others including the distinctly apologist Eight. (The first incarnation, the One, was apparently a humble archivist who therefore doesn’t appear much.) Thanks in no small part to the work of both Fitton and Bonnar, it’s simply a creation that works, immediately joining the pantheon of great Who baddies that includes the Master and Davros, amongst others. Genuinely a great concept.
Second, they’ve created a brace of fine stories here, the jewel in the crown being Dorney’s The Red Lady. Always one of the strongest BF writers, Dorney misses few tricks here, managing to both create a genuinely chilling horror piece that arguably would fit just as well in an Omega Factor box set, and also to introduce new companion Helen Sinclair beautifully. Arguably one or the other of characterisation and narrative will suffer during an introduction story, but that is definitely not the case here: Sinclair hits the ground running, establishing herself early as no-nonsense, intelligent and with just the right weight of (justifiably present) chip on her shoulder. With no knowledge that she would continue I found myself wanting to hear more from her from early on. I was very happy to learn, at the end, that I would.
And thirdly, of course, it’s those old favourites of mine, the sound-design (no need to say more than that it envelopes seamlessly and lovelily) and the performances. Mark Bonnar’s already been mentioned, but I want to mention him again: just superb. More please, BF. Hattie Morahan’s interpretation of Helen Sinclair is clear and utterly believable right from the start, and as I said above I really look forward to hearing more from her. But the continuing cast are on sparkling form here. Nicola Walker’s Chenka, released from the burden of knowledge of her disease at the end of Dark Eyes, is far more open and likeable than before, and that really pays off. I don’t really like the word ‘feisty’, but it’s fair to say that she gives the Doctor as good as she gets.
And oh! That Doctor! McGann has a glee about him here that’s been missing a little over the last couple of years – the weight of the character’s pain at that time being thoroughly translated into performance by the actor – and the difference now is tangible. As a listener it’s hard not to engage. No matter what’s thrown at him he drags you along, and as he gets his teeth stuck into something he palpably shoves your own gnashers in too. The whole thing is a roller-coaster. It’s joyous. It’s a ride.
And there’s one final thing Big Finish has done with Doom Coalition volume 1: it’s brought a little mystery back. I mean, one box set in and the question is still unasked, let alone unanswered: ‘Doom Coalition’ – what the hell does that mean?