Review: The Companion Chronicles 4×9 – Shadow of the Past

Shadow of the PastLiz Shaw: brilliant companion from the brilliant seventh season of Doctor Who. Yet it’s been over three years since she last featured in one of the Companion Chronicles, The Blue Tooth. Hooray, she’s back!

Doubly hooray, it’s Simon Guerrier who’s writing for her, Guerrier being responsible for the brilliant Home Truths and The Drowned World. Can so much excellence all in one place lead only to excellence or is this going to be a letdown?

There’s a secret locked up in UNIT’s Vault 75-73/Whitehall. Dr Elizabeth Shaw is the only one left who knows what that secret is.

Returning to UNIT for the first time in decades, she slowly unravels the past. The vault contains the remains of a spaceship that crashed in the Pennines in the seventies.

For the young Liz Shaw, the priority is to ensure the thing’s safe. But the Doctor is more concerned about the alien pilot. And the chance this ship offers for escape. Can he resist the temptation, or will the Doctor turn on his friends?

Is it any good?
It’s good. I might even be inclined to head towards very good. But it falls short of excellent, unfortunately.

Here we have Liz relating a story to a young UNIT soldier about her time in UNIT with the third Doctor. When a spaceship crashes, she, the Doctor and the Brigadier investigate the wreckage. That’s when things start to go pear-shaped and soon, the aliens are declaring war on the defenceless Earth.

There’s a certain ambivalence among Whoers with regards to season seven (aka “The Liz Shaw years”). On the one hand, virtually everyone recognises that they’re decent grown-up scripts with a decent grown-up companion and they admire it. On the other, they’re all of an age where they’re a hell of a lot fonder of the Jo Grant and Sarah-Jane Smith years of Pertwee’s reign.

Guerrier’s script leans a lot more towards The Claws of Axos and other monster of the week yarns that came after season seven. We have a weird beastie that needs to be fought. We have the Time Lords coming in to intercede. We have a somewhat passive companion and her romance with a UNIT soldier: squint and you’d swear it was Mike Yates and Jo Grant in action at times.

We also have a terrible faux pas: the “stupid alien name that gives the whole game away”. Here, shortly after the Doctor investigates the capsule, he recognises “mimetic tissue” from a bunch of aliens called “The Mims”. Well, guess what their secret is. Since that little ‘surprise’ sets up the cliffhanger for part one and continues into part two, there’s a big chunk of the middle section of the play where you’re killing time.

(SPOILER)And since you might well be expecting Guerrier to mirror the structure and style of Home Truths, partly as a result of the way he writes Liz’s interactions with the UNIT soldier – there are obvious mysterious within the first two minutes, not the least of which is why they’re down in the vault anyway – the surprise ending really isn’t. The title also gives the game away a bit as well.(/SPOILER)

Still good though
In common with The Blue Tooth, Liz Shaw feels ‘off’, as well. Her playful, witty, dynamic onscreen self kicks around villains, devises plans, takes on monsters and saves the world. Here she gets driven around in cars a lot, complains about the Doctor, whinges she doesn’t get much to do when the Doctor’s around, then when the going gets tough, goes looking for the Doctor in case he has a plan. She’s humourless and while she does get to be suitably scientific, relies on men to do everything.

It’s as though the only thing Guerrier – and indeed most authors – remembers about her is the Brigadier’s explanation for her departure in Terror of the Autons*. The authors seem to be fulfilling their fannish need to explain everything, developing the character to explain her growing dislike of working for UNIT and her departure, rather than simply serving the character. And since this is set before The Ambassadors of Death, there’s no need at this stage to be doing so.

So, guys, this is a plea: could we not just have a story in which she gets to enjoy herself, be smart and save the world? Hell, even Jamie’s had one of those.

No really, it’s still good though
These complaints aside – and my last complaint is the stupid sound effects they give to the alien, which make it sound like something from Scooby Doo – it’s well written and mature. Caroline John and Lex Shrapnel give good performances. Liz is smart, quoting scientific papers and doing a little electronic engineering under the Doctor’s guidance. The anti-militaristic tendencies of the third Doctor are countered, with the UNIT boys’ bravery given its due for once. It’s gritty with deaths, much loved characters getting beaten up, and sacrifices aplenty. Even the Brigadier comes out of the whole thing well.

I just wish it could have been a bit more Liz Shawish and that the aliens hadn’t had such a stupid name.

Amazon CD: £7.19
Big Finish download: £7.99
Big Finish CD: £8.99

Caroline John (Liz Shaw)
Lex Shrapnel (Marshall)

Writer: Simon Guerrier
Director: Lisa Bowerman

*Shadow of the Past actually features a guest appearance by a character from said story