❉ There’s not a weak link among these stories, and each is stronger and richer than the last, writes Kevin Burnard.
“These three stories are a colossal reward for people who’ve followed these characters for all this time, relying on the chemistry and history built between them and the cast over time to reveal rich new sides to the characters sure to please fans a great deal.”
Connections is an apt subtitle, because Doctor Who: The Eighth Doctor Adventures: Connections is about exactly that. The latest of the ongoing audio adventures of Paul McGann’s Eighth Doctor, Nicola Walker’s Liv Chenka, and Hattie Morahan’s Helen Sinclair continues in the spirit of the previous set, providing three wholly standalone adventures free of the massive arcs that have defined this team, but this time, that by no means means it’s free from the history of these characters. Instead, Connections focuses in on something more rewarding than lore arcs and ongoing sci-fi plot hooks: it focuses on the connections between the characters we’ve been going adventures with together for more than seven years. The three stories that result are also solid, but more than that, they’re a colossal reward for people who’ve followed these characters for all this time, relying on the chemistry and history built between them and the cast over time to reveal rich new sides to the characters sure to please fans a great deal.
The set starts with perhaps the most straightforwardly fan-pleasing episode of the lot, frequent contributor John Dorney’s Here Lies Drax. The story, a sequel to Dorney’s fan favorite The Trouble with Drax for Tom Baker, which revitalized the Doctor’s oft-forgotten school mate con artist Drax from a bit part in a 70s serial, sets out to achieve similar things, unfolding as a very tightly plotted, twisty comedy starring Shane Richie in the main guest role. It has easily the lightest approach to the Connections theme of the stories in the set, with the Doctor’s old friendship with Drax mostly being used as a basis for him to get roped into yet another caper as he con artist’s stooge, revealing very little about the Doctor as a character and even less about Drax and their friendship. Given the heavy emotional themes the set will go on to take, that’s no issue, the tonal variety and breadth of depth is welcome and makes for a cohesive set.
What’s less successful is that this story is lightweight while essentially feeling like a retread. The tricks here are largely recycled from Dorney’s previous Drax adventure, just in slightly different ways. I’ll admit the exact nature of the plot did surprise me, and was cleverly done, but it lands as trickery for its own sake, and, unfortunately, I don’t think is funny enough to really land as a comedy, with more time given to crossing the ts of the plotting than actual punchlines. There’s great ideas here, especially the world which for economic reasons has moved all of society into a giant skyscraper, but it feels a bit rote. John Dorney has been wheeling out plotty comedies for some time now, including the previous set’s Paradox of the Daleks, and while he is good at them, I’m left wanting some new jokes and new tricks. This isn’t a bad episode, in fact I would genuinely say it was good, but it’s been done a few too many times to feel fresh.
Fresh, fortunately, is exactly what The Love Vampires by James Kettle delivers on. A slight twist on the classic vampire tale, here the crew find themselves stranded on a space station menaced by vampires who take the form of hallucinations of their targets’ first loves. The resultant story feels more like a collection of talky vignettes than a propulsive story in its own right, but I think that’s ultimately a strength. Kettle uses the monster of the week to reveal vital new character-building information about both Helen and Liv, both of whose first loves feel entirely true to the characters we’ve seen them become. The morose tone and emotional work really gripped me though the plot was fairly standard fare, leaving me lingering over small observations about relationships and pondering those in my own life. And that, really, is what I want from a properly good drama, to be challenged and made to see my world in a slightly different light. Kettle mentions in the behind-the-scenes interviews his goal to bring the same character drama approach from the Stranded arc, which he contributed to with the excellent Snow in the third volume, to the stars, and he succeeds admirably at that ambition.
As a result of the heavy focus on the characters, though, there are elements that don’t get the same focus and crisp execution. As with most of Stranded, it tend to be the sci-fi plotting elements that don’t cohere as well. The guest characters of Fifteen, Twenty-One, and Three are hardly going to stick with anyone, and tend to fall into stock base under siege types for Doctor Who. It’s not that the script never does anything to push them into new territory, and the way it pays off the standard intransigent commander beats in the end is really quite lovely, but it’s still an hour of fairly standard plot beats and character types driving the stronger emotional material. And the story given to the Doctor himself is likely to be a little controversial, dangling massive reveals about the past of the show and then hitting an odd compromise that doesn’t quite satisfy in either direction. Nonetheless, for me, The Love Vampires was a runaway success, and that’s because it focuses on the things that really matter, making the listener think and feel. It’s not often a Big Finish audio really sets out to stir the emotions, and this one succeeds on that front, bringing new richness to two of my favorite audio characters along the way, including new information about Helen that’s already made a number of fans incredibly happy. That’s been lovely to see, and this story was lovely to listen to. That’s two home-runs for Kettle with the Eighth Doctor, Helen, and Liv, and I certainly wouldn’t complain about seeing him back soon.
The best, however, is saved for last. Roy Gill’s concluding script, Albie’s Angels, was spoken of in quite reverent tones in most communities I frequent on release, and listening to it, it’s very easy to see why: this is something really special. The connection this episode focuses on is Helen’s relationship with her gay older brother Albie, who was disowned by her family and arrested for his sexuality. This was introduced in Gill’s similarly well-received UNIT Dating from Stranded 2, and here, we finally get to see Helen’s reunion with her brother, and the joys and heartbreaks that result. It borrows from real life tragedies in ways that feel honest and important, providing witness to real injustices with a lot of tenderness and understanding. Homophobia is a real and horrible force, and this strikes a balance between that nightmare and the joy and affirmation of queer love, both romantic with Albie’s lover Bailey, and platonic, as Helen gets the chance to support her brother for the gay man he is.
It’s also the return of the Weeping Angels, a visual monster famously tricky to make work on audio, and probably the most successful realization of them in this medium yet. Gill wisely remembers their roots in Blink, which carried over to The Angels Take Manhattan — the Angels can be scary evil monsters, but the biggest threat of all they bring is time, and the loss that comes with it. As a result, they’re a perfect fit for the bittersweet tone this story takes. And even in terms of action set-pieces, they’re handled well, with a memorably clever sequence on a frozen lake finding a number of elegant and evocative ways to describe their movement through dialogue without feeling forced.
Albie’s Angels, then, is a clear highlight of the set. It’s clever, it’s a tearjerker, it’s richly produced and richly written — I didn’t even mention the lovely original song that serves a pivotal role in the plot, or the gorgeous, stylish narration Hattie Morahan sells the hell out of at a crucial moment. There’s many treasures in this story, and it’s better to listen than let me list them all out. It may just be the strongest showing for Helen as a character yet, and easily a highlight of all seven years and fifty-ish episodes this team has had together so far. If the characters and their connections to each other can keep getting mined for emotions this rich, I hope there’s seven more years to come.
Connections, ultimately, is a triumph for one of my favourite Doctor Who teams. There’s not a weak link among these stories, and each is stronger and richer than the last. It’s proof that you don’t need a big arc to do stories that feel big and important, just a devotion to making the stories feel important to the people who are in them. The heart of drama is relationships, after all, and every story here knows it. So to Eighth Doctor fans, especially those who love these characters as much as I do, I can’t recommend this one strongly enough. It’s truly one of their best.
DOCTOR WHO — THE EIGHTH DOCTOR ADVENTURES: CONNECTIONS
Writers: John Dorney, James Kettle, Roy Gill
Director: Ken Bentley
Script Editors: Matt Fitton, Tim Foley
Producer: David Richardson
Senior Producers: David Richardson, John Ainsworth
Executive Producers: Nicholas Briggs, Jason Haigh-Ellery
Duration: 230 minutes.
❉ Released December 2022, ‘Doctor Who: The Eighth Doctor Adventures: Connections’ is available to own for just £19.99 (collector’s edition CD box set + download) or £16.99 (download only, exclusively from the Big Finish website. Big Finish listeners can save money and catch up on the previous 2022 Eighth Doctor box set, What Lies Inside, by purchasing it with Connections in a bundle from just £33.
❉ 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.