You know, when Steven Moffat sat down to work out how the next series of Doctor Who was going to work, I'm sure he had many, many things to consider. Not least of these was the kind of companion who was going to accompany the Doctor.
Now Big Finish can be a little off the wall sometimes, but usually they're quite conventional. However, this time – for three plays only – they've done something that I bet Steven Moffat never, ever considered: they've given him a racist, fascist, time-travelling Nazi scientist as an assistant. Yeah, beat that Stevie, you no-talent hack.
For those of you who haven't been listening to the Big Finish plays for the last decade or so, Colditz has probably slipped under your radar, especially since it's a Seventh Doctor/Ace play, so likely to be languishing at the bottom of any collection/bargain bin. Just to jog your memory, it's the one with David Tennant doing the bad German accent.
You probably won't recall the actual plot, however, so let me remind you: the Doctor and Ace land in/near Colditz; they do lots of dumb things; the Nazis capture them and the TARDIS; a Nazi scientist called Klein takes the TARDIS into the future where the Third Reich have won the Second World War; through timey-wimey machinations the alternative future gets undone, Herr David Tennant gets killed off, and Klein is left lurking around somewhere in the world, possessing knowledge of science and the alternative future that she shouldn't have.
A Thousand Tiny Wings picks up where Colditz left off by plopping the companionless Seventh Doctor down into 1950s Kenya at the time of the Mau Mau uprising. Here he comes across a bunch of posh English people stuck in a house and slowly being killed off by a mysterious poison. And Dr Elizabeth Klein.
Sounding good yet? No? Thought not.
Yet, despite sounding extremely bad on paper, it's actually a pretty decent play in practice.
1950s Kenya. The Mau Mau uprising. A disparate group of women lie low in a remote house in the jungle, waiting for a resolution or for rescue. Among these British imperialists is Elizabeth Klein, a refugee from a timeline that no longer exists… thanks to the Doctor.
Reunited, the Doctor and Klein are forced to set aside their differences by terrifying circumstances. People are dying in this remote place. One by one. And there's something out there, in the jungle, accompanied only by the flutter of a thousand tiny wings…
BONUS EPISODE! THE COMPANION CHRONICLES: THE THREE COMPANIONS
The Hunter by Marc Platt: With the coffin loader on the rampage in London, Polly, the Brigadier and Brewster meet an old acquaintance. But can he cure the planet's accelerated global warming?
Is it any good?
As Andy Lane, the story's writer, points out on the CD extras, this is basically The Thing (From Another World) flipped on its head: rather than a bunch of blokes isolated in the arctic, it's a bunch of women isolated in the tropics. And of all the many, many The Thing transpositions that sci-fi has done over the last 60-odd years, this is one of the better ones.
Lane, you may recall, cut his Doctor Who teeth writing Seventh Doctor New Adventures in the early 90s, and this does have the feel of a New Adventure. We have an interesting alien species – a hive-minded bird race that, since it has no opposable thumbs, telepathically controls mammals to do the heavy lifting. Said species has landed on Earth and is up to no good, although I won't tell you what they're up to right now. Needless to say, it involves killing off humans, at the very least.
Although it never quite achieves the claustrophobic tension of The Thing, feeling more like an episode of Tenko (and that's not just because of Ann Bell headlining the guest cast), A Thousand Tiny Wings does clip along at a good pace, has some decent characters, some decent actors and some good ideas.
Where it falls down a little is in the dialogue between the Doctor and Klein. Like some of Ken Loach's more tedious bits of agitprop, most of the Doctor's and Klein's conversations revolve around Nazism, fascism, individualism and indeed politics in general. They just can't stop talking about it. Even Klein wants the Doctor to shut up.
While that could be tolerable if done right, Klein becomes a simple mouthpiece for extreme Nazi politics (the benefits of simply air-bombing an uprising rather than dialogue between both sides are espoused, for example). There's little nuance to her beliefs, and although they do manage to achieve quite decent levels of sophistication, it's tiresome. It's like Big Finish is justifying the inclusion of Klein by saying "But now we can expose and confront the false thinking behind Nazism." BF: this isn't Question Time, Klein isn't Nick Griffin – most people, certainly Doctor Who fans are unlikely to be secret Nazi sympathisers more than 65 years after WW2 ended. You don't need to do this.
Notably, though, Klein never really goes into the territory of "Aryans are best". Instead, that's left to the crusty old English women she's friends with – because, goes the theory, if you want to make an evil Nazi scientist look good, stick her next to some racist upper class English people of the 1950s. Whether that's because Big Finish didn't think anyone would want to listen to plays featuring a racist companion or whether it's because they didn't want to write a racist companion, you'll have to guess.
Either way, by the end of the play, Doctor 7 is offering the unrepentant Klein a seat in the TARDIS in the belief that travel broadens the mind – and reforms fascists (all evidence to the contrary). I'm a little intrigued to see where they're going with this, but to be honest, how many people would rather have three Mel plays instead?
For once, Sly does a good job, sticking to the emotional range he's best at; Childs is good as Klein, even pronouncing German words correctly, although there's not a hint of an accent; and Alex Mallinson (Big Finish's graphic designer, apparently) could possibly have done better by being less emotive with his grunts as Abraham.
It's a solid, clever piece of work by Lane and director Lisa Bowerman, but all the same: time-travelling Nazis? Why?
On balance: not a must-have, but clever and if you have a subscription, you won't have to avoid this one like the plague.
The Three Companions
Meanwhile, back in the neverending The Three Companions, the plot gets more boring as we realise it's all just a great big con job, there's a stupid hunt going on, and Thomas Brewster does an appallingly bad Welsh accent. Please can we have something else at the end of these CDs, Big Finish?
Sylvester McCoy (The Doctor)
Tracey Childs (Elizabeth Klein)
Ann Bell (Mrs Sylvia O'Donnell)
Abigail McKern (Mrs Denise Waterford)
Joannah Tincey (Miss Lucy Watts)
Chuk Iwuji (Joshua Sembeke)
Alex Mallinson (Abraham)
Writer: Andy Lane
Director: Lisa Bowerman
- April 22, 2010: Review: Doctor Who - 131 - Survival of the Fittest
A review of the Big Finish Doctor Who audio play Survival of the FIttest, starring Sylvester McCoy and Tracey Childs