❉ Sarah Sutton delivers a spectacular performance, writes Sam Maleski.
“Showing how Classic Who companions actually lived in the TARDIS, and felt about travelling in a concrete, day-to-day way, isn’t the kind of beat you get very often, and it’s deeply welcome.”
The Short Trips have always been a compellingly strange range. They’re easy-to-access, much cheaper than the rest of Big Finish’s catalogue, and have allowed many new authorial voices to emerge; but their format’s kinda odd. Most of the time, they’re prose, but not quite audiobooks: prose that’s meant specifically to be read and performed. It’s actually kind of a demanding format, and many of the less compelling entries in its history have been stories that lean way too much on the prose, on the descriptive side of things, failing to present a narrative that truly sings with the constraints of the range.
That’s not the case of the most recent one, Alan Flanagan’s Downwards Spiral, the second Doctor Who work of its author after 2018’s (excellent) Jabari Countdown. In fact, it offers one of the most compelling structural ideas the range has had so far: it’s often at its best when it’s exploring quirky, strange and experimental ways to tell a story, and this proves no exception. The narrative’s told in the second person, with the listener effectively playing a character, past events they partook in narrated to them by Nyssa. It allows for both evocative prose (the way Flanagan describes the confined space of a zero-G spaceship is deeply striking, filled with tiny, compelling little details like globes of peanut butter floating through the kitchen), and an immediate narrative hook that keeps the listener engaged throughout a very solid story.
That engagement also owes a lot to Sarah Sutton, who delivers a spectacular performance: the script asks her to shift character voices extremely fast, and she nails it, not only providing different and distinct characters, but actually conveying a lot of emotion in a way that really enhances the storytelling.
And certainly, the story is invested in giving Nyssa an emotional edge: there are obvious parallels between her and Siobhán, the stranded pilot of a compromised ship, who’s cut off from her family as she drifts among the stars. Siobhán is, by the way, a great one-off character, and feels immediately real and textured: the bits where she talks about her father, and how he inspired her to become a space explorer, are extremely touching, filled with warmth, humanity, and once again detail. She, of course, reveals greater trauma with time, the audio intertwining her emotions and grief with Nyssa’s.
The audio might shine more when it tackles Siobhán, actually – which could just be a logical product of the circumstances it came out in. There’s something immediately compelling, right now, about the story of a woman locked away from everyone she loves, and not coping well with it at all, and it’s written with deeply touching care. For all that the audio plays its spiral motif (which is a great touch of visual storytelling, by the by) as a compelling plot beat, its core resides in looking very seriously at self-destructive tendencies, through a prism of metaphor – and, as Can You Hear Me? proved on television, mental health awareness through sci-fi is always a good thing. The way she’s integrated to the story, becoming “you” in a way, makes her all the more touching, and hearing Nyssa encourage and support her becomes a very uplifting experience. It’s a bit of a self-help tape, this story, really – deeply wholesome in its own way.
The character beats for Nyssa might not be quite as sharp – which isn’t the fault of the writer, really, but rather, of the way the character has been developed throughout the Expanded Universe. Big Finish can sometimes treat companions as deeply static, and Nyssa has been hit with that more than most: so many of the stories that actually engage with her are about the trauma of losing her home, losing her father. It’s certainly a topic that needs exploring, but characters could (and maybe should) be pushed further – even when she returned to the TARDIS as an older version of character, from Cobwebs, the new arc she was given involved her losing her newfound family again! Downwards Spiral tackles the subject very compellingly, and Nyssa trying to help Siobhán by talking about the memories of her father is a great scene taken individually, but it’s all well-trodden ground.
Flanagan does shine, though, in how it gives texture to her solitude, to her frustrations with the Doctor – that’s something that feels a lot more new, unexplored, and sharper. The Doctor doesn’t always listen to her desire to spend time on academic and intellectual pursuits (preferring instead – great joke – to head for planets made entirely of bouncy castles); she falls prey to cabin fever, she gets annoyed and lonely, with the more drastic experiences of Siobhán serving as a great foil, and a great illustration, for her state of mind. Showing how Classic Who companions actually lived in the TARDIS, and felt about travelling in a concrete, day-to-day way, isn’t the kind of beat you get very often, and it’s deeply welcome.
It sums up the release, really – not without its flaws (the standards Nyssa character beats, the Doctor not fitting perfectly neatly in the story of these two women), but a breath of fresh air in so many ways, showcasing a real sense of tact and emotional storytelling, backed up by very strong prose and structure skills. It’s a great time (and a lockdown audio if ever there was one).
❉ Doctor Who – Short Trips: Downward Spiral is now available to download exclusively HERE for just £2.99. Big Finish listeners can save money with a bundle of the Short Trips range and get the 12 stories from series 10 for just £30 – Get the bundle HERE!
❉ 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.