❉ Writer Roy Gill has become one of the defining voices of this range, writes Kevin Burnard.
“The clear highlight of this set is Roy Gill’s The Ghost Writers, a deviously fun and fantastical adventure that ratchets up the stakes while nailing the heart of what makes a Paternoster Gang story work… Gill’s scripts for The Paternoster Gang find a new path, defining this world with queerness, literary aesthetics, and an awful lot of magic. The Ghost Writers might just be the purest case of it yet.”
A lesbian lizard, her ninja maid wife, and their heavily-armed, potato-shaped space butler: The Paternoster Gang was a winning combination from the off, with their Doctor Who debut in 2011’s A Good Man Goes to War, and fandom cried out for a spinoff pretty much from the start. Well, now, almost a decade later, Big Finish has just wrapped up their first ever spinoff series, Heritage, with the three-episode fourth volume. Obviously, spinning off The Paternoster Gang was worth doing. But was this the spinoff they deserved?
The fourth and final volume of Heritage opens with a much-demanded crossover in Merry Christmas, Mr Jago. Following on the heels of 2015’s Jago and Litefoot and Strax, in which Strax delightfully invaded the world of Victorian infernal investigators Jago and Litefoot, now it’s time to swap, with theatre impresario Henry Gordon Jago returning the favour and crashing into a bit of Christmas mayhem on Paternoster row. The goal here is simple, to have a lot of festive fun, and the plot isn’t remotely subtle with its riffs on Christmassy films to get the spirit going. The threat owes much to Gremlins, while all the biggest laughs come from Strax playing the role of Kevin in Home Alone. It’s not deep, and I found one plot element so deeply obvious that I was practically screaming for anything, anything else to happen, but it keeps things buoyant enough to be pleasantly silly time, especially in how it allows Strax to warp stakes to truly absurd proportions on a regular basis.
Beyond some of the plot slightness, I do have a quibble with how Jago is incorporated here. Christopher Benjamin is always a delight to have around, and writer Paul Morris, a mainstay of the Jago and Litefoot series, knows the character like the back of his hand. However, I think it’s a shame the story assumes both the audience and the Paternoster Gang do, too. Part of the fun of a crossover for me is seeing how the characters react to each other. Jago and Litefoot and Strax was in part delightful because Jago, Litefoot, and their friends didn’t know Strax, and he didn’t know them, so their misunderstandings of each other could fuel dramatic tension and oh so much comedy. Here, the choice is made that the whole Paternoster Gang is now well acquainted with Jago, meaning that there’s less friction in their dynamic, which I found a shame. I think it’s also a missed opportunity in introducing Jago more thoroughly to new audiences; not every fan who wants to hear more of some standout characters from the Matt Smith era will have watched 1977’s The Talons of Weng-Chiang to get to know him, and this episode makes almost no concessions to the uninitiated. That said, this is four sets into the range, and he is the big selling point on the cover, so perhaps this is what the target audience likes best. If you just want a silly hour of Jago palling around with the Paternoster Gang, this will deliver it all and then some. It achieves what it sets out to do.
The clear highlight of this set is Roy Gill’s The Ghost Writers, a deviously fun and fantastical adventure that ratchets up the stakes while nailing the heart of what makes a Paternoster Gang story work. In my review of the previous volume, I said Gill has become one of the defining voices of the range, and he again shows why here. While weaker episodes of this range are content to follow basic Who logic, or approach things in the same general terms as Big Finish’s Jago and Litefoot series, Gill’s scripts for The Paternoster Gang find a new path, defining this world with queerness, literary aesthetics, and an awful lot of magic. The Ghost Writers might just be the purest case of it yet.
The plot is pretty simple, involving magic ink and fantasy stories coming to life across London. This in itself is highly entertaining — Strax’s encounter with a mermaid is worth the price of admission in of itself, and I’m still laughing days later—but it also provides a window to deeper emotional concerns. Amidst the rompy humour, The Ghost Writers finds room to examine unrequited gay love, institutional sexism in academia, and most thrillingly of all, a well-realized lover’s quarrel between Vastra and Jenny to lead into the finale. Vastra and Jenny’s relationship is one of the most beloved and powerful parts of their characters, but it’s not always been the most fleshed out dynamic. Hearing them sympathetically pushed into opposition goes a long way to strengthening them as characters, and makes for an emotional lead-in to the finale.
And after twelve episodes of Heritage, a loose arc about personal legacies and ancient Gods, the story finally comes to an end in Matt Fitton’s Rulers of Earth. This is a story that starts with everything having gone as wrong as it can go, while the characters race to deal with the fallout and save the Earth. On paper, I feel like this probably sounded terribly exciting. In practice, however, it doesn’t quite manage to thrill.
Chief among the issues here is that, as a result of previous events in the set, all three members of the Paternoster Gang play a minimal role in the plot, which instead revolves around the least developed character of the recurring Bloomsbury Bunch, Vella. While her cohorts, Tom and Stonn, received the bulk of the focus in the trio’s introductory episode, and returned for set three’s Truth and Bone, Vella hasn’t been seen since her debut in the first set, and hanging the drama around her feels quite unsatisfactory in comparison to the Paternoster Gang’s oversized personalities.
It doesn’t help that we’ve seen the main beats here many times before. To not give much away, the plot revolves around stock Silurian beats, their sadness at having lost the Earth to humanity combined with a bit of classic Who telepathic third eye psychobabble. This is the heritage Vella and Vastra are faced with, and sure enough, that’s a fair angle to pursue. But the joy of Vastra as a character has always to me been that she already represents moving on from that old mould and allowing the Silurians to be distinguished as characters rather than stock monsters with a stock plot. It feels like a step backward rather than a tale of moving on from the past. It may be applied in some new ways, such as a parallel subplot about a man claiming to be a deposed monarch of Britain, but it never feels propulsive or fresh enough to land. Once the whole Paternoster Gang come back into focus for the climax, it turns into quite a sweet finale, with shades of The Rings of Akhaten’s examinations of faith and storytelling, but the journey to those very nice beats is rough going.
Ultimately, I’m left with complicated feelings about The Paternoster Gang: Heritage, feelings that define my relationship to this concluding set. There’s been some delightful moments this series: I stand by my praise of the entirety of the third set, the second set’s The Screaming Ceiling filled me with joy, and throughout the range, Roy Gill’s episodes have pointed the way to a unique and meaningful identity for the range. But that identity hasn’t quite taken hold yet. The series is still getting caught up a bit too much in its own Doctor Who heritage, too many stories beholden to classic Who logic. I don’t care about the telepathic power of the Silurian third eye. I care about Vastra and Jenny arguing. I care about Tom and Stonn trying to make their human/Sontaran gay criminal lifestyle work. I care about Jenny’s disconnect with her parents. And my God, I sure care about Strax blowing up some mermaids. More of those things, please.
The Paternoster Gang has faced off its heritage, on a personal level and a cosmic one, and both in and outside of the narrative itself. Along the way, I think it’s found a way forward. But I’m looking more forward to the series it discovered it could be along the way than I have enjoyed the series this actually was.
❉ ‘The Paternoster Gang: Heritage 4′ is now available to own as a collector’s edition CD box set or download from just £19.99, exclusively from www.bigfinish.com.
❉ Kevin Burnard is a writer, filmmaker, and podcaster. He can usually be found watching TV and tie-in media, tweeting about TV and tie-in media at @scribblesscript, or frequently, both simultaneously. Backflips are sometimes involved.
All images courtesy Big Finish Productions.