❉ Big Finish delivers the goods with an epic tale of two Doctors.
A newly regenerated Fifth Doctor arrives on an occupied ice planet – where the Seventh Doctor is investigating dangerous energy experiments conducted by the Earth Empire. But events spin out of control when a refugee from the distant past arrives – Patience, the Doctor’s Wife!
In a year full of remarkable releases, Cold Fusion, ends the current run by setting the bar even higher.
The second-most amazing thing about Big Finish Productions’ audio adaptation of Lance Parkin’s milestone ‘Doctor Who’ novel ‘Cold Fusion’ is the simple fact that it exists. Two decades ago, when a professional dramatization of a ‘Doctor Who’ novel with Peter Davison and Sylvester McCoy (among others) reprising their TV roles was virtually unthinkable, its existence probably would have been the single most amazing thing about it. As the saying goes, though, the past is another country, and in 2016 the most amazing thing about this release is the quality of the adaptation itself.
While some of the early ‘Doctor Who’ stories from Big Finish flirted with the world of the Virgin novels, the relationship wasn’t really consummated until 2012’s adaptation of ‘Love & War’. As a highlight in a year full of remarkable releases, Love & War set a high bar for subsequent releases in the series. Whatever Big Finish’s plans for further adaptations may be, Cold Fusion, which Parkin himself scripted, ends the current run by setting that bar even higher.
The plot is appropriately epic. For their part, the production team gives their all to match that scope. Big Finish delivers the goods.
With a backdrop that includes heavily-armed space-fleets, a mysterious Time Lady, ghosts and an existential threat to the universe itself, the plot is appropriately epic for a story involving multiple Doctors. For their part, the production team gives their all to match that scope. Big Finish typically delivers the goods sonically, but the sound design here feels especially robust. This isn’t limited to the depiction of the physical environments but also mental ones experienced during the Doctor’s telepathic interactions with the newly-regenerated Time Lady Patience. Their work further impresses by recognizing the effectiveness of silence, as witnessed in a particularly devastating moment in the final episode.
Small but gripping moments are one of Lance Parkin’s defining traits as a writer, and the presence of multiple Doctors gives ample opportunity to indulge in them. He’s particularly effective when referencing ‘Doctor Who’s’ past – and in at least one case future – history. Some writers deploy continuity simply as “Easter Eggs” for well-versed fans, while others present references to the past almost as objects of worship. Parkin is one of the few who seems to appreciate that continuity can be a crucible rather than just a museum.
When McCoy’s Doctor meets Adric, the script wisely underplays the moment, but a tangible sense of regret comes through in McCoy’s performance, highlighting that for all his cleverness the Doctor himself is no stranger to consequences.
More often than not the connections Parkin makes between the events of ‘Cold Fusion’ and established lore serve to heighten the overall drama. Even something as tangential as discussing a future incarnation of UNIT underlines that this is a universe of consequences where events from centuries past still resonate in the story’s present. This is particularly striking when McCoy’s Doctor meets Adric. The script wisely underplays the moment, but a tangible sense of regret comes through in McCoy’s performance, highlighting that for all his cleverness the Doctor himself is no stranger to consequences.
Of course, it’s not all high-drama for Parkin. He’s equally adept at esoteric references that in the wrong hands could be misused as some sort of Whovian litmus test but tend to be quite playful in his. Amusing examples include the Doctor musing about whether his hair has gotten shorter since they left Castrovalva and Adric’s lack of recognition when another character refers to his pseudo-namesake physicist Paul Dirac.
Just as The Three Doctors was very much a Jon Pertwee story with Troughton and Hartnell as guest stars, this is a Peter Davison story with McCoy and his audio/novel companions Roz and Chris as guests.
The prevalence of Adric highlights two significant things about ‘Cold Fusion’. The first is that Parkin remains one of the few people who can actually write this rather contentious character effectively. The second is that, just as ‘The Three Doctors’ was very much a Jon Pertwee story with Troughton and Hartnell as guest stars, this is a Peter Davison story with McCoy and his audio/novel companions Roz and Chris as guests.
Conceptually, the “Missing Adventures” novels were intended to fit comfortably into the television eras of their respective Doctors, and that mindset comes through very clearly here. Davison and his companions all sound a bit older than they did in 1982, but they nonetheless help make this the kind of story fans might wish they’d seen on TV back then. Despite one or two clunkers, Davison’s first season achieved the show’s best overall balance in the 1980s between science-fiction concepts with action-adventure elements and pointed to how much potential the new Doctor and the show itself had.
‘Cold Fusion’ is both a reminder and fulfillment of that promise. It stands with The Caves of Androzani and Big Finish’s own ‘Spare Parts’ as one of Peter Davison’s very best stories. It also underscores the flood of creativity that took place during the show’s “wilderness years” and the way it continues to influence ‘Doctor Who’ in the present.
❉ ‘Doctor Who – Cold Fusion’ was released on 15 December 2016. It will be exclusively available to buy from the BF website until January 31st 2017, and on general sale after this date.