Review: Doctor Who – 123 – The Company of Friends

As we all know, Paul McGann is technically the longest serving official Doctor Who. Although only having done one TV story, he graced the pages of books and comics and, of course, starred in the Big Finish audio plays for the best part of a decade.

During this time, the Eighth Doctor racked up a number of companions, including Bernice Summerfield and Fitz Kreiner in the books and Izzy Sinclair in the comics. He even, apparently, travelled with Mary Shelley for a while, if you believe an off-hand comment he made once. However, until now, we’ve never had actors playing these companions in any of the audio plays (okay, Benny I’ll give you, but she never appeared with the Eighth Doctor).

With a 4×25 minute play featuring the Eighth Doctor to write, it occurred to Big Finish that they could finally give these old companions voices, and flesh out the Eighth Doctor’s range of audio companions. So here comes The Company of Friends, featuring (as always) Lisa Bowerman as Benny, Matt di Angelo (off EastEnders) as Fitz, Jemima Rooper (Hex, Lost in Austen) as Izzy and Julie Cox (Dune, Children of Dune) as Mary Shelley.

What a fantastic opportunity. What a pity it’s mostly been wasted.

1. Benny’s Story
by Lance Parkin 
Deep in the mines of Epsilon Minima, Professor Bernice Summerfield is up to her neck in it – as usual. The Countess Venhella has hired her to recover a lost Time Lord artefact: A TARDIS key, it turns out. Guess whose?

2. Fitz’s story 
by Stephen Cole 
On the planet Entusso, the Doctor and Fitz Kreiner investigate Alien Defence Incorporated – your one-stop shop for protection against extraterrestrial invasion! But which is the greatest menace: the hideous Vermin Queens or ADI itself?

3. Izzy’s story
by Alan Barnes 
TARDIS travel opens one’s eyes to a universe of possibilities, reckons the Doctor. For geek girl Izzy, it’s also a fantastic way to track down ultra-rare back copies of ‘Aggrotron!’, the most dangerous comic in history…

4. Mary’s story
by Jonathan Morris 
Switzerland, 1816: at the Villa Diodati, Lord Byron’s house guests tell each other tales to curdle the blood and quicken the beatings of the heart. With a monster on the loose outside, young Mary Shelley isn’t short of inspiration.

Bonus episode: The Companion ChroniclesThe Three Companions
Cremation Point by Marc Platt
As the end of a world approaches, Polly, Ben and Jamie attempt to escape the Gathernaut.

Is it any good?
With four separate plays, four separate authors and four separate companions/actors, there’s going to be some variability. And given that each play is only 25 minutes long, there’s not much room for each to distinguish itself.

Certainly, Lance Parkin’s Benny story is the one that works best of the four, managing to capture the tone of Benny very well and convey an interesting idea (well, several interesting ideas) at the same time. It’s no classic, but it’s a good "Benny primer" at the very least and you’ll feel your brain stimulated, too.

Going down the quality scale slightly, we have Jonathan Morris’s Mary Shelley story. Comparisons with Timelash would be cruel, but the idea of Mary Shelley getting her inspiration for Frankenstein from the Doctor invite it. McGann alternates between good and "a bit rubbish", depending on who he’s playing (yes, he gets multiple roles in this one), while Cox’s Shelley is just fine; the rest of the cast is frightful however and the story itself, while again having some interesting ideas in it, ultimately undermines the real-world people portrayed, which is slightly criminal to say the least.

Now we come to the bottom of the barrel. These last two are comedic in the traditional sense of Big Finish’s comedic stories – ie not at all funny.

The Fitz story sees Matt di Angelo giving his very best Danny Dyer impression in a story that would have been relatively good if it hadn’t been played for laughs. It’s quite cringeworthy at times, and while it gives you hints at the qualities of Fitz that made him interesting in the books, it just makes the listener thank God that Big Finish never tried to make any plays featuring him.

Down at the very, very end of the quality scale, somewhere below the bottom of the barrel, we have Izzy’s story. Izzy is 17 when she joins the Doctor, which makes you wonder why the talented Jemima Rooper is playing her as a 12 year old. Oh wait, it’s the appalling script in which Izzy tries to get a back issue of a comic she was following, only to discover the whole, appalling comic storyline is a true story. There are a couple of jokes, but Izzy’s reduction as a character to little more than a child, the horrific attempts at comedy and the general ineptitude of it all, means it’s like sandpaper on your eardrums.

On the whole, while it’s nice to see it happen, for the casual listener, this is pretty much a waste of money, and for the fan, it’s a wasted opportunity.

Over on the interminable, execrable The Three Companions, Polly keeps reading her book that’s supposed to be an email but isn’t, then Polly stops reading and no one cares. Next release, the Brigadier is going to tell us why he wasn’t bored to death by it all, since apparently something similar happened to him. Or something. Do you think they’ll ever get to the point on this?

Amazon CD: £14.99
Big Finish Download: £12.99
Big Finish CD: £14.99

Paul McGann (The Doctor)

Benny’s Story
Lisa Bowerman (Benny)
Richard Earl (Klarner)
Su Douglas (Venhella)

Fitz’s Story
Matt di Angelo (Fitz Kreiner)
Fenella Woolgar (Commander Hellan Femor)
Paul Thornley (Michael Rond)
Su Douglas (Gem Weston)

Izzy’s Story
Jemima Rooper (Izzy)
Steve Hansell (Grubb/The Man)
Teddy Kempner (Grakk/Clerkie/The Camp Robot)
Anthony Glennon (Courtmaster Cruel)
Robert Forknall (Foreman)
Katrina Cooke (Juror)
Robert Forknall/Ian Hallard (Suits)
Ian Hallard (Captain Cannibal)

Mary’s Story
Julie Cox (Mary Shelley)
Anthony Glennon (Percy Shelley)
Robert Forknall (Lord Byron)
Ian Hallard (John Polidori)
Katrina Cooke (Claire Clairmont)

Writer: Lance Parkin Stephen Cole Alan Barnes Jonathan Morris
Director: Nicholas Briggs