Review: Doctor Who – 131 – Survival of the Fittest

Survival of the Fittest coverWhen last we left the seventh Doctor in Big Finish land, he’d decided it was a cracking good idea to take a time-travelling Nazi scientist on a grand tour of the universe with him.

As you do. Can’t see anything going wrong there, can you?

Nevertheless, said scientist, Dr Elizabeth Klein – who is from an alternative universe in which the Nazis won World War 2 – is now the Seventh Doctor’s companion in his travels through time and space.

Of course, with the great big ‘Nazi’ thing hovering over her, do you think the Big Finish writers could resist writing a story about the struggles of a ‘master race’ trying to obtain lebensraum? Of course not, which is what we have with Survival of the Fittest.

Nevertheless, despite its occasional ladelling on of the sub-text, Survival of the Fittest is actually a very decent, intelligent hard SF story. It’s also preceded by an equally interesting episode-long flashforward to Klein’s future which sees a guest visit by the eighth Doctor.

Unfortunately, there’s also the concluding part of The Three Companions tacked on the end. Couldn’t go five for five, could we?

The hive of the Vrill bears the scars of a terrifying cataclysm. Only a handful remain alive, hatched after the holocaust of the mysterious Winterlack. The Vrill seek a new Authority. They find the Doctor, a two-legged creature who can lead them to survival. He must solve the mystery of the Carrion beast that haunts the lower chambers. He must face the Winterlack that still stalk the mountains. And he must find a path that does not lead to extinction…

Plus: Klein’s Story
Elizabeth Klein is an anomaly. A renegade from an alternate future in which the Nazis won World War II, In an attempt to get to know his latest companion, the Doctor invites Klein to tell him how exactly she came to be in possession of his TARDIS and of the events that led to her trip into the past to Colditz Castle.

Plus: The Three Companions
The final episode. Like anyone cares.

Is it any good?
I was surprised. It was really good. After a few minutes of plot-dump intro, I thought I was going to be in for two CDs of torture, but this was thoroughly enjoyable.

Klein’s story
Thanks to Survival of the Fittest only having enough story post-script edit to last for three eps (ah, if only all Big Finish plays had such a rigorous edit), director John Ainsworth and Lee Mansfield got together to write an episode fleshing out Klein’s backstory, most of which had only been mentioned in passing seven years ago during Colditz. So we start the first CD with Klein telling the Doctor about her life in the future and how she came to be back in Colditz in 1944.

Whoers will immediately notice that Dr Elizabeth Klein is yet another alternative universe version of Liz Shaw, with Klein essentially getting the same dialogue and backstory as Liz Shaw did in Spearhead in Space. Mirroring that story, the eighth Doctor turns up in much the same way as the third Doctor did – after the seventh Doctor gets shot dead in the woods in a scene mirroring the TV movie. His mission: send Klein back in time to change history back the way it should have been before Ace’s CD player messes up the war, but without her realising she’s been duped.

And this is all very well done. The script is strong, the acting and the characterisation good: even Paul McGann puts some effort into it.

So far so good.

Survival of the Fittest
Then we get into the play proper. Here, after a few travels together mentioned in passing, Klein and the seventh Doctor end up on a planet whose giant native insects are being killed by the ‘Winterlack’. The play takes something that’s really just a plot device for the series proper – the TARDIS’s ability to translate languages – and turns it into a centerpiece.

The insects, the Vrill, communicate by smell but are otherwise sentient, and writer Jonathan Clements builds up and considers the implications of a bee-like society that works on those lines – far more successfully than The Web Planet does for example. By contrast, the Winterlack use sound to communicate, but with the TARDIS in the vicinity, suddenly everyone can understand one another – can a peace be brokered between the two sides?

Although the fascistic Winterlack are used a little clumsily, spouting unlikely dialogue about how they’re the master race and should be able to use nature the way they want, the rest of the play is subtle, with the Doctor having to learn how Vrill society works to be able to help them and save the day – a nice touch is his occasional decision to split up from the Vrill since any conversations he has with them will leave scents that others will be able to eavesdrop, for example. Klein, for her part, switches between sides, occasionally agreeing, occasionally disagreeing with the Winterlack, but tricking them with varying degrees of guile.

The ending is a treat as well, although you could see it coming a mile off. If I’m going to complain about anything, it’s the music, which does feel a touch Hammond organ at times, but it’s a minor niggle.

The Three Companions
Then we have the conclusion of The Three Companions, which feels like it’s been going on forever. Oh wait, only since July. July. Blimey.

Starring Nick Courtney, Anneke Wills and John Pickard (he’s not a proper companion!), it’s possibly been the most pointless thing Big Finish has ever done (although we still have Graceless to look forward to) and has been stuck on the end of every Doctor Who release since The Magic Mousetrap. If it was an attempt to get people to buy Companion Chronicles, I can only imagine it failed catastrophically or at least spurred a massive boycott, such has been its dreadfulness.

In it, Polly and the Brigadier have exchanged emails about some tedious adventures they had with the Doctor. Then the world started falling apart and it all turns out to be linked in to a bunch of pikey mercenaries trying to con the world into giving them some cash using a monster.

It has literally made no sense, and with no proper recap at the start of each play, trying to remember what happened last time hasn’t really helped to make it make sense.

At the end, pikey mercenary, who’s been holding the whole world to ransom, instead of killing the three ‘companions’ (Thomas Brewster isn’t a companion. He just isn’t. Stop it) when they threaten to reveal what he’s been up, just let’s them go and they don’t tell anyone that the entire world was nearly destroyed as part of a con job. WTF?

It’s absolutely diabolical. It’s been absolutely pointless. I’ve had to listen to all of them and that’s a whole two hours of my life I’m not getting back. Damn you Big Finish.

But the rest of the CDs are really good.

Amazon CD: £10.49
Big Finish download: £12.99
Big Finish CD: £14.99

Sylvester McCoy (The Doctor)
Tracey Childs (Elizabeth Klein)
Rupert Wickham (Faber)
Adrian Bower (Steffen)
Hannah Smith (Rose)
Evie Dawnay (Lilly)
Mark Donovan (Jackson)
Alex Mallinson (The Carrion)
Paul McGann (Johann Schmidt)  

Writers: Jonathan Clements/John Ainsworth and Lee Mansfield
Director: John Ainsworth