Sorry. Got a bit distracted there.
Peri’s one of those Doctor Who companions that could have been good but never got the chance. The Doctor’s first American companion, she could have been a good foil for the Doctor and asked questions about things we’d always taken for granted (screw “If you’re an alien, why do you sound like you’re from the North?” How about “Why is the entire universe populated by people with English accents?”). Unfortunately, bar one episode where she gets to make a potion using her knowledge of botany, she had bugger all to do except scream and look good.
Sorry, got distracted again.
So far, Peri has appeared in a substantial number of Big Finish audios, usually with the fifth Doctor but occasionally with the sixth. Her fifth Doctor appearances have done little to rectify the “Peri as cypher” problem, since most of the allotted characterisation time has been given over to new companion, Egyptian pharoah Erimen.
And despite being more of a sixth Doctor companion anyway, only having an intro story plus one other with the fifth compared with a bit over a season and a half with the sixth, she’s had little by way of characterisation in those plays, too, with perhaps only Her Final Flight offering anything by way of variety to the character (and that one didn’t even count. Listen to it and you’ll know what I mean).
But, ta da! Here it is. Finally. The story where Peri gets something to do. More than that: it’s an entirely Peri-centric story, set in her home-town and home-age of Baltimore, 1984.
Ooh. And it’s got cybermen, too (it’s on the cover: I can’t be spoiling it for you if it’s on the cover).
Plot (available from all good stores)
On the morning of 9 May 1984, Peri woke up. She was expecting to spend the day relaxing in Lanzarote and, that evening, leave her mother and stepfather to go travelling with some guys she’d only just met.
But things don’t always go as expected as her friends and family discover when, four months later, she returns home having travelled further than anyone could have imagined.
Meanwhile her friend, Katherine Chambers, mourns her father and Peri finds herself meeting some other familiar faces.
Erm, yes, with a few slight reservations.
There’s a reason Russell T Davies keeps sending the Doctor and his companion du jour back home: out of their natural habitats, companions can no longer exhibit much of their skills or personality; you also don’t get much feel for them as people. The Reaping has clearly learned this and other valuable lessons from new Who.
Back in the States of 1984, Peri is actually quite interesting. She’s the most popular girl in class who always overshadowed her geeky best friend; she was somewhat of a flirt, dating the star football player yet willing to head off to Morocco with a bunch of English guys she’d just met; somewhat self-centered, she matures during her time with the Doctor so much that her mother and friends barely recognise what she’s become as a result of her travels.
As a result, the Doctor plays somewhat of a second fiddle to Peri for the story. While Peri is busily being characterised, the Doctor is advancing the plot and is in a battle of wits with the Cybermen that is actually quite cleverly done. His eventual solution to the Cyberplot is classic Baker though and contains several nice nods to continuity. Colin Baker is also able to crank up his comedy performance at times to make the most of the opportunities he does get. There are a couple of odd moments, though, such as when the Doctor suspects the cybermen are travelling in time, simply because it’s 1984 and Attack of the Cybermen happened in 1985: how about they turned up a year early and were still planning things in 1984?
Talking of which: continuity. It’s mentioned everywhere and forms a reasonable chunk of the plot, although not oppressively so. There’s talk of spectrox toxaemia, the Doctor’s regeneration, Turlough, Sarn and a load of other things. However, the story does deftly dodge the standard Big Finish continuity catchphrase – “symbiotic nuclei” – and all the references are at least explained, so even those who aren’t up to speed with fifth and sixth Doctor continuity should be able to cope without too many problems.
But for the most part, the plot is fine, with Peri and the Doctor returning to Baltimore to investigate the murder of her best friend’s father, only to discover there’s cybermen in them there hills. Rather than the somewhat rubbish cybermen we’ve seen of late, these are old-school cybies who seem to have taken a couple of pages out of the Borg’s play-book. They’re logical (except when required dramatically to be otherwise: Cyber safety warning messages? WTF?), devious, uncaring, and downright nasty.
They’ve also started “possessing” members of the town using their clever ear implants. Mind, it’s a funny town, Baltimore, filled with English people putting on US accents, with only varying success (much like The Wire, actually). I think Claudia Christian (Ivanova in Babylon 5), who plays Peri’s mother, and Vincent Pirillo are the only genuine Americans in the cast, but none of them seem to be trying to do a Bal’more drawl either. Still, it’s not the undiluted horror that was Minuet in Hell‘s stab at the US, so let’s not get too picky.
There’s a twist, but then it’s gone
There’s an interesting development towards the end of The Reaping, at which point you say to yourself, “Well, I was not expecting that.” Unfortunately, everyone wakes up and it was all a dream. Okay, they don’t, but what actually happens is so completely random, there might as well have been a big button on the wall marked “Reset” that the characters push. You’ll probably feel, as I did, a bit cheated by the whole thing: either the particular plot twist shouldn’t have been in there or there should have been another 10 minutes of story to at least explore it a bit before it was snatched away.
Nevertheless, the twist, among other things, gives Nicola Bryant a chance to really shine. I get the feeling that she’s one of those actors who gets bored easily. Give her the usual mundane stuff and she’ll turn in an acceptable performance; actually give her something to work with and it’s as though someone’s just turned on the Blackpool lights. True, she’s hobbled slightly by having to fake a US accent, but she still does some amazing stuff when called upon. However, that thing about forgetting what it’s like to be a teenager when you’re an adult appears to have kicked in big time, with her performance placing Peri in the 10-12 age range some of the time and in the 23-25 range at other times.
There are a few of other nods to new Who: the Doctor and Peri are depicted, despite all on-screen evidence to the contrary, as imagining themselves as a team who go around sorting out the troubles of the universe, somewhat like a game, something far more in keeping with the Rose/Doctor relationship; there’s also a long period of emotional incontinence by Peri in which she tries to explain to her mother and friends why she travels with the Doctor, why he’s her best friend (his having ‘died’ to save her life, among other things), why they constantly bicker yet really ‘love’ each other and so on; and lastly, the idea that when the limelight is pointed at the companion, the companion can still have a jolly good try at running the show in the Doctor’s absence, despite all previous evidence to the contrary.
I’m not necessarily sure I’d recommend this to someone who wasn’t a fan of Peri, the sixth Doctor, or the cybermen. If you fit any of those categories, this is definitely one of the better outings by Big Finish in these genres. If, on the other hand, all of the above leave you cold, you should probably steer clear.
The Doctor (Colin Baker)
Peri (Nicola Bryant)
Janine Foster (Claudia Christian)
Anthony Chambers (Stuart Milligan)
Kathy Chambers (Jane Perry)
Nate Chambers (Jeremy Lindsay-Taylor)
Daniel Woods (Vincent Pirillo)
Lt. Doyle (John Schwab)
Mrs Van Gysegham (Denise Bryer)
Natalie Hamilton (Allison Karaynes)
Cybermen (Nicholas Briggs)
Writer: Joseph Lidster
Director: Gary Russell
Release Date: September 2006
RRP: £14.99 (international £15.50)