❉ What lies inside ‘What Lies Inside’? Two well-told, solid stories, offering a welcome change of pace after four ambitious box set arcs, writes Kevin Burnard.
“The main job of this set, presumably, is to give listeners an easy point to jump on in and get to know Paul McGann’s Eighth Doctor, Hattie Morahan’s Helen Sinclair, and Nicola Walker’s Liv Chenka, and in terms of showcasing how good they are to spend time with as a TARDIS team, this set nails it.”
With a long-running series like Doctor Who, every few years, you have to hit a soft reset button. You need new jumping on points, and you need new creative directions. That’s true on TV right now, with the swapping of showrunners, Doctors, even broadcast networks. But it’s also true of Big Finish, currently in the process of revamping their entire line. So after four 16-part epics in a row, the ongoing Eighth Doctor box set era of Doctor Who audios has hit the breaks, with a fresh, accessible new standalone set, What Lies Inside? And perhaps the biggest surprise of all is just how new and refreshing going back to the basics is, even for an old fan who’s heard it all before.
Paul McGann’s Eighth Doctor, Hattie Morahan’s Helen Sinclair, and Nicola Walker’s Liv Chenka are a tremendously well-oiled team at this point, now having around fifty adventures together under their belts. But until this set, every single one of them has been in service of a larger arc, going all the way back to Helen’s introduction in Doom Coalition, and even before that, with Liv’s debut as part of a Seventh Doctor arc with Robophobia before getting parachuted into the mess of Molly O’Sullivan’s storyline with Dark Eyes 2. It’s not that either of the two stories in this set are actually particularly groundbreaking, but it is a novelty to hear these characters in a lower stakes environment and relish in the easy banter and chemistry between the three. The main job of this set, presumably, is to give listeners an easy point to jump on in and get to know them, and in terms of showcasing how good they are to spend time with as a TARDIS team, this set nails it.
Indeed, “cute” isn’t the word I would have expected to come to mind while listening to John Dorney’s two-hour time travel twisting Paradox of the Daleks, which opens this set, but cute is indeed the word that’s stuck with me for it. Daleks bring a level of expectation for long-time Doctor Who fans, and not one that’s actually met all that often, if we’re being honest. Fans tend to expect a Dalek story to be where things should get serious, with high stakes, grim action, and a lot of death. If that’s what you’re expecting, this will be a huge let-down. Because the greatest pleasure of Paradox is that it strings you along with that expectation in the first half, complete with playing Helen’s first meeting with the Daleks with all the grim seriousness nerds like myself have been waiting for, before dropping the real truth on you: You’ve been listening to a comedy romp the whole time.
As a story, it’s nothing Doctor Who hasn’t done before, or even anything John Dorney hasn’t done with the Eighth Doctor before. It’s a purely structural script, existing entirely to showboat for a bit with a tidy and wholly unremarkable bootstrap paradox. Some of the tricks the plot pulls are easier to guess than others, but they all follow a familiar logic, and I’d be surprised if too many Doctor Who fans find it much of a challenge to follow, despite the concerns of the author in the behind-the-scenes interviews. But what it does do is make room for a lot of charm and comedy. The plotting convolutions ultimately delight because of how the characters deal with them in their stride, with confusion, exasperation, and ingenuity. That includes not just the main cast, but the very small supporting cast of Joseph Millson and Amy Rockson, whose characters are extremely thin but who benefit tremendously from getting to play confused and irritated by the standard Doctor Who plot unfolding around them the whole time. In short, Paradox of the Daleks is a cozy, undemanding time. It’s not what I’d ask for from Doctor Who all the time but it does work very well as a change of pace after the lofty ambitions of the past four box set arcs, and should be enjoyable as an access point for new fans.
Equally frothy, though in some places with surprising amounts of meat to it, is the second story in the set, the hour-long The Dalby Spook, written by relative newcomers to Big Finish, Lauren Mooney and Stuart Pringle. Whereas the familiar plot of Paradox of the Daleks feels even more familiar to this reviewer due to how many similar stories John Dorney has written at this point, the simple, familiar celebrity historical haunting plotting of The Dalby Spook surprises because of the authorial slant, clearly being written by a pair of writers with interests and philosophies outside the norm of Big Finish and Who in general. The story itself is extremely straightforward, building off the irresistible real life historical event of skeptic Harry Price investigating the case of Gef the talking mongoose on the Isle of Wright, and hauntings and shenanigans ensuing. But its sympathies turn out to be quite surprising.
Doctor Who tends to lionize its historical figures, or at least act out of deep sympathy towards them, when it builds a story around their lives. Similarly, the show tends to, despite having all sorts of magic and psychic nonsense exist, come down on the side of skepticism, science, and rationalism as its core value and aesthetic. But The Dalby Spook is a little more complicated. In the behind-the-scenes interviews, Mooney and Pringle mention a shared interest in Fortean philosophy that first made them aware of this wild story from history, and that philosophy, which I hadn’t heard of before, shines through here. Forteanism is, evidently, a philosophy built on deflating the egos and authoritative assertions of science and applying skeptic principles to them, as well. In the absence of conclusive scientific evidence against the possibilities of the strange and paranormal, it embraces it as possible. And so, broadly, we get a story about how Doctor Who is more at home teaming up with a paranormal talking mongoose than it is a real life skeptic researcher.
I’m not sure how much I feel the resulting story works, but it’s off-kilter in ways that are genuinely new and doing things I’ve not heard Big Finish Doctor Who take a stab at before. Gef the talking mongoose is a sublime idea, but somewhat grating in practice, hard to understand and rarely feeling like he says anything worth the effort. A more nuanced look at Harry Price would have been welcome, as one gets left with the feeling that the writers have a fairly dim view of him without getting much of a picture of who he is or why. But when it does work, it’s really wonderful. In particular, I love how much of an ear for character this script has, with its desire to puncture the egos of know-it-all scientists also being targeted at the Doctor in a very successful subplot for Helen. It builds brilliantly on the established core anxieties and traumas of her character while also establishing who she is and what she’s been through for prospective new listeners, and makes for some nice drama within the ensemble. Ultimately, I’m left really appreciating The Dalby Spook, even if not fully falling in love with it. It shows there’s room for more kinds of voices in Who and that there’s new kinds of stories to tell. And better yet, it shows there’s so many more weird moments in history left to explore. I’d never heard of Gef the talking mongoose before, but it sure is one of my favourite historical anecdotes now!
What, then, lies inside What Lies Inside? Both stories take a somewhat literal approach to that title, with it referring obliquely to plot mechanics in both stories as best I can tell, but a deeper thematic resonance is less present here. And does that succeed at being a good start for new listeners? I suppose it does, especially for anyone on a budget who can only afford one set to sample. But I’d be hard-pressed to recommend it as the best place to begin when Doom Coalition 1 and Stranded 1 are both so brilliant and introduce things even better. I think What Lies Inside? probably just lands best as a treat for people like me who’ve already fallen in love with this team of characters and would happily listen to them on any old adventure, because at long last, that’s what they’ve gotten to go on. Go figure, a team this good can carry well-told ordinary Doctor Who stories as well as they can special, weird, ambitious ones. It’s good, and it’s necessary after how heavy and at times convoluted the stories have gotten of late, but I’m hoping for more heft from the next round. Still, What Lies Inside? is a welcome breather in the saga of Helen Sinclair and Liv Chenka, with two solid stories that serve to remind why they’re two of the best creations audio Doctor Who has to offer.
DOCTOR WHO: THE EIGHTH DOCTOR ADVENTURES — WHAT LIES INSIDE?
Director: Ken Bentley
Script Editor: Matt Fitton
Writers: John Dorney, Stewart Pringle & Lauren Mooney
Cover Art: Rafe Wallbank
Producer: David Richardson
Executive Producers: Nicholas Briggs, Jason Haigh-Ellery
All images © Big Finish Productions.
❉ ‘Doctor Who – The Eighth Doctor Adventures: What Lies Inside?’ is now available to own as a collector’s edition CD box set (+ download for just £19.99) or as a digital download only (for just £16.99), exclusively from the Big Finish website. Both 2022 box sets of The Eighth Doctor Adventures can be purchased together in a bundle for just £38 (collector’s edition CD box set + download) £33 (download only).
❉ 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.