❉ One of the most engaging Big Finish sets of the year, writes Sam Maleski.
The Sixth Doctor and Peri – an iconic Classic Who team, but also one that comes with a lot of baggage. Nicola Bryant and Colin Baker brought wonderful talent to their performances, but the onscreen relationship between their characters was marred by quite unhealthy dynamic, with the initial outburst of physical violence in The Twin Dilemma weighing heavy over the rest of their run. Big Finish, ever eager to dig into the gaps offered by the television show, had already started to exploit that dynamic further: first, by hiring Nev Fountain, Bryant’s real-life husband, to pen a series of critically-acclaimed, generally fantastic Peri stories (for instance, Peri and the Piscon Paradox, a genuine classic); and then by having an older Peri rejoining the Doctor after the events of Trial of a Time Lord in a 2014 trilogy of monthly stories.
Six years later, in the middle of a process of shifting from monthlies to more concept-driven boxsets, they are returning to that pairing, and this first (and hopefully not last!) outing of the pair in a new format is a real success, showing a truly welcome ambition and drive, and a desire to push the aesthetics of the Classic show into new places, new formats and structures. The individual episodes, as we’ll discuss in a moment, are really solid, but what really jumps at you is how strong the dynamic between the characters is. There’s a lot of love and affection between the two there, but, especially compared to the Flip and Constance stories that came out this year, there is a notable difference in how Six is written: he’s a younger character here, after all, more brash and over-the-top, Colin Baker’s joy at chewing the scenery being very adeptly tempered by scripts that are willing to question and undercut his character, and it makes for deeply compelling listening.
Unfortunately, the set does start on its weakest episode – unexpectedly, since it is credited to James Parsons and Andrew Stirling-Brown, the writers of LIVE34, wildly considered (rightfully so) to be one of the best Who stories of all time. Certainly, The Headless Ones shows some of the same qualities that shone so bright in their masterpiece – a willingness to tackle difficult political topic, and an uncompromising sense of righteous anger. However, whereas LIVE34 acted as an incredibly relevant take on fascism, this story’s metaphors are considerably more muddled. It is at its core a story about white guilt, about the dark side of British imperialism, but, as the title and cover showcase, it is rooted in images that were initially used as caricatures of blackness. The burden of historical exploitation and violence is displaced from actual black people (who make all in all only a minimal appearance in the story) to a bunch of aliens that just happen to exhibit traits colonizers wrongfully attributed to native populations. Certainly, the story has got its heart in the right place, and the satire surrounding the villain of the piece, lord Erpingham (exquisitely performed by Hugh Skinner) hits hard and satisfyingly – but it’s not quite precise and sharp enough to justify how loaded its imagery ends up being, especially when the Doctor himself splits the difference between “exploration” and “exploitation” of Africa, ignoring how the two often overlapped. The framing device, which hampers the general pace of things despite being a fun bit of literary pastiche, and a large helping of stock feminist beats, don’t really help it to shine either. It has commendable ambition, but maybe doesn’t quite manage to match it in execution.
While similarly political, Jac Rayner’s Like feels much deeper – it might certainly frustrate the kind of Who fans who crave revolution-driven stories, given how it approaches a much more “this is how the world is, how can we best deal with it” approach, a la Kerblam!. But it does it with gusto, examining the mechanics of a world entirely driven by social media with a fair amount of nuance and enjoyably layered worldbuilding, and with laugh-out-loud funny humour. There’s an undeniable thrill in seeing the Sixth Doctor and Peri wondering through this very Russell T Davies-era techno-satire, and the constant shifts in tone and format, leading up to a wonderfully clever resolution, keep the experience as fresh as it is entertainingly challenging.
The third episode comes from relative newcomer Stuart Manning, who proves with The Vanity Trap that he’s at least as good a writer as he is an artist, delivering what’s easily the highlight of the set. It grabs the aesthetics of the classic “fallen star” Hollywood narrative, all Sunset Boulevard, and gives it a uniquely Who twist, sending the Doctor and Peri on the cursed shoot of the last movie of a forgotten actress. It’s a great script, that hands all of its character meaty and complex material – Myrna Kendal, the aforementioned star, is a staggeringly rich character, backed by Deirdre Mullins delivering one of the most memorable performances in recent Big Finish history: vulnerable and touching one moment, deeply unlikeable the next. The Doctor very much finds a kindred spirit in her, and the story’s not afraid to dig in the darker sides of both their characters, and the toll it can have on their friends and families, resulting in a wonderfully inventive, and deeply emotional resolution. And on top of that, it throws you dozens of witty zingers, time-travelling elephants, and devilishly smart timey-wimey shenanigans. It’s a gem, it really is.
Nev Fountain continues his long line of Peri character pieces with the finale to the set, Conflict Theory. As per usual, he’s attempting something incredibly weird and ambitious: here, to drive the relationship between the leads to a breaking point, as in some kind of Classic Who pastiche of Hell Bent. And when the story actually sits down and commits to the bit, it is stellar. There is a lot of problematic history surrounding Six and Peri, and it is a very welcome breath of fresh air to see writers trying to directly address it and exorcise it: the scenes of conflict are superb, the dialogue between the main characters and their therapists (Sigmund Freud robot doubles, because of course), initially witty and hilarious, soon fading into very compelling theoretical dissections of the show’s past history, that feel genuinely quite illuminating.
There are ample reasons for why that level of raw, difficult self-introspection doesn’t persist through the story, of course, although it is nevertheless a bit disappointing. It certainly helps that the third act is still very good, even though it’s very good in a completely different way, with a shift towards action comedy (coupled with some very dirty jokes, which is always fun). The wit and glibness of the story end up undercutting its emotional core rather than reinforcing it – but it’s still got plenty of wit and emotion, and, much like every single Fountain story, Conflict Theory remains a fascinatingly ambitious piece of high-concept, experimental Who.
The Sixth Doctor and Peri, in the end, proves itself to be one of the denser and most engaging Big Finish sets of the year. There is a lot of coherence between the stories, a desire to engage with complex personal and political topics, and that, coupled with the chemistry between Bryant and Baker, feel like a powerful foundational act for a range: there’s a lot of gold here already, and probably even more just waiting to be dug.
❉ Doctor Who: The Sixth Doctor and Peri volume one is now available to own as a collector’s edition five-disc box set (£24.99) or as a download (£19.99), exclusively from www.bigfinish.com
❉ Sam Maleski (they/he) writes about genre fiction and Doctor Who – including one Black Archive for Obverse Books and the Sheffield Steel essay collection series. They can be found tweeting at @LookingForTelos and blogging at @MediaDoWntime.