Dearie me. It's getting harder and harder to find the time to listen to these things, what with the main range and the Lost Stories to listen to as well. Even with the judicious skipping of the obvious ringers (4x6 – Bernice Summerfield and the Criminal Code – being an obvious one, since SHE HAS HER OWN RANGE. SHE DOESN'T NEED A COMPANION CHRONICLE AND SHE'S NOT EVEN A PROPER COMPANION ANYWAY SINCE SHE'S ONLY IN THE BOOKS), I've had to skip 4x7 (The Suffering) as well, even though it looks quite interesting, since it's a double CD so takes twice as long. I'm sure I'll get back to it in due course, but until then, here's 4x8 The Emperor of Eternity.
This is a purely historical story set in BC China, with the second Doctor, Victoria and Jamie having close encounters with the emperor of China and swords. Like The Suffering, it's a double-companion piece, with both Deborah Watling and Frazer Hines reprising their roles.
After colliding with a meteor in space, the TARDIS is forced to make an emergency landing on Earth. The place is China around 200 BC, during the reign of the first emperor, Qin.
When the Doctor is taken away to the imperial city, it’s up to Victoria and Jamie to save him. Their friend is now a prisoner of Qin, who intends to extract the secret of eternal life, so that he may rule the world forever...
Is it any good?
Sometimes, given that Big Finish has actually produced more Doctor Who audio plays than there were old Who TV plays, it's easy to forget that it's actually just a few blokes working on a small budget in Bristol somewhere.
The obvious issue with The Emperor of Eternity is that it misses one or two tricks when it comes to Jamie and Frazer Hines. This is the first time Hines and Watling have been in an audio play together, and given Hines' ability to mimic Patrick Troughton, you'd have thought he could have done Troughton's lines and come about as close to making this a true Second Doctor audio play as it's possible to do.
But the entire thing is narrated by Deborah Watling, who with the exception of Hines' Jamie also does all the other characters' parts, including the Doctor's. And Jamie hasn't got a whole lot to do in the whole thing anyway.
Once you get to the CD Extras, of course, it becomes obvious what's happened: reading between the lines, Hines recorded all his lines in a gap in production on some other days, couldn't turn up for recording when Watling was available, leaving Watling the bulk of the work. Big Finish ain't the Beeb, it ain't got the budget of the Beeb, and actors ain't so easy for it to pin down. I could be wrong, of course, but that seems the most likely occurrence.
Once you therefore excuse Big Finish this little issue, you can judge The Emperor of Eternity on its own terms. Now, it has to be said, those terms are "quite dull". Watling doesn't manage to inject much spark into the story, and rather than try to deliver her lines in the same pitch as her 1960s self, she doesn't do a Nicola "where's my helium balloon?" Bryant but keeps to her own timbre – which isn't as interesting as it used to be.
The story also shies away from anything too graphic. On the CD Extras, the explanation for this, since author Nigel Robinson's original story was apparently far more bloodthirsty, is "you have to keep in mind the audience for these plays" – what 30 and 40 something nerds? Since when have they been averse to a little horror?
So rather than an epic historical Water Margin affair, we have Jamie and Victoria plodding around villages, being very slightly menaced in a non-threatening way by some quite timid Chinese warriors. They chat a lot. They worry about the TARDIS being nicked, so the Emperor of China will never die. No one's in that much danger. Everyone hides in bushes a lot. Nothing is looked at in too much detail. It's a jolly romp in the same vein as the old historicals of the 60s, and about as exciting – in fact, a lot less since it's audio.
It's nice to sort of hear Watling and Hines together again – or at least having their lines played after one another's – but this doesn't really add too much to either character, doesn't really excite and doesn't educate, inform or entertain. It's not bad – it's just not good.
Deborah Watling (Victoria Waterfield)
Frazer Hines (Jamie McCrimmon)
Author: Nigel Robinson
Director: Lisa Bowerman