❉ A funny, touching, literate and political romp that delights as much as it provokes.
Has there ever been a more timely Big Finish release?
It’s a serious question. The Flip/Constance/Sixth Doctor team has always been one of the best-guarded secrets of the company’s output, not just because of the actors being very good and sharing considerable chemistry (although that’s the case), but because of the very concept behind it. Flip and Constance are both strong women, progressive women even, but come from two different times, with two different sets of values, that often clash and lead to rich and layered stories that explore deep political themes: the journey of Constance from stuck-up, slightly prejudiced WW2 housewife to time-travelling freedom fighter has been one of the most entertaining bits of character development in the history of the company. And that process is something the writers have very much picked upon – after the excellent Scorched Earth, which made the team face against the contradictions of WW2 history, The Lovecraft Invasion tackles fiction, and how to cope with bad people making good art.
It’s not subtle about it. Which might bother you – but then again, the story’s not aiming for subtle. It’s a passionate plea against racism and bigotry, and for diverse, trans and queer lives. Which, given the violence inflicted in the real world right now, and the way some people use the success of their work in fiction as a shield behind which to hide their bigotry … Once again, timely. It is necessary advocacy – which, by extension, invites the Doctor Who fan to consider the show’s own past with a critical eye.
The fact it’s wrapped up in a real tight and well-constructed narrative certainly helps. The audio is really clever in how it indulges in the imagery and mood of the Lovecraft oeuvre without glorifying it or presenting it uncritically: the decision to have the story set within the author’s own mindscape is a stroke of genius, allowing the story to throw at the listener all of the Cthulhu Mythos in a free-associative, The Mind Robber-esque way while keeping a very compelling distance towards it. The tons of little nods to Lovecraft’s short stories (some part of the plot, some very subtle – a special shout-out to that one mention of Asenath Waithe) made me squee with geekish delight, but right next to those, you get a ton of very nuanced, compelling point about how those stories were recuperated by geek culture and commodified, turned into roleplaying games and plushies, or how the personal problems of the writer shaped his universe. Unlike Big Finish’s previous incursion in the world of the Providence poet, 2010’s Lurkers at Sunlight’s Edge, this isn’t a story featuring the works of Lovecraft, but about them.
Flip absolutely thrives there, compared to a Constance that finds herself a bit more on the sidelines, getting to show her most fun and geekiest side in a way that’s both delightful, and really thematically motivated. Her and the Doctor get to be part of those stories, but also manipulate them, change them, play with the rules of the setting: and it’s, of course, what the point of this audio ultimately is. It’s filled with love for the Cthulhu Mythos, shining in both the care put into the historical and literary details, and in the production, with a great musical score and an impeccable sound design (clearly, the screams of the Shoggoth were a blast for the sound engineers to implement) – but it also understands that love for a fictional world sometimes means taking ownership of the text yourself, accepting the bad stuff, and making something better out of it.
Not that the story rejects the horror and the scares – it simply displaces those onto the character of Lovecraft himself. It’s his own demons, its own psychoses, wonderfully brought to life by Alan Marriott, that give the story a scary edge, especially towards the ending of the story. And it’s important to note, for all that the story criticizes him (drawing some extremely acute and perceptive parallels with modern right-wing movements, especially in that whole spiel about the idea of “logic”), he’s still presented with complexity. He’s someone who suffered legitimate harm, and who could never find peace: he chose his path, but him opting for bigotry is ultimately presented as something deeply tragic, and there is a real humanity and beauty in how the Doctor chooses to consider him, that really elevates the story. It goes beyond fiery politics, and reaches this strange feeling of abstract poetry only Who – at its best – is capable of delivering.
Which is not to say the politics aren’t compelling: the decision to pair Lovecraft and Constance, two characters from the past, with future bounty hunter Calypso Jonze, played by Robyn Holdaway (who gives probably the standout performance of the whole play). Obviously, the character is a representation milestone for the whole franchise: a (human!) queer and nonbinary character, played by a queer and nonbinary actor? Oh, the feeling is sweet (and not just because I’m one of those). It’s a real victory, and the script is perfectly aware that Holdaway is an absolute score, giving them tons of space to carry the action sequences and angrily delivering fantastically-written monologues at Lovecraft. Really, they feel like the perfect embodiment of that queer, weird, wonderful future that Russell T Davies had teased during his era as showrunner – but brought to life in the liminal spaces of the expanded universe, that can go further, and be more provocative. The character truly stands out, and, as motivated and precise as their presence here is, it’s hard to not crave for more of them – they could absolutely sustain plenty of audios on their own.
In short – The Lovecraft Invasion is a triumph: writer Rob Valentine’s best story to date, and one of the absolute highlights of the year. It’s a funny, touching, literate and unashamedly political romp that delights just as much as it provokes. As said in introduction: this might be the most timely release ever produced by Big Finish, and it deserves enormous respect for not just making a stand, but making it in such an eloquent and enjoyable way.
DOCTOR WHO: THE LOVECRAFT INVASION
Duration: 120 minutes approx.
Released: June 2020, exclusively from the Big Finish website.
Director: Scott Handcock
Producer: John Ainsworth
Senior Producer: David Richardson
Script Editor: John Ainsworth
Written by: Robert Valentine
Executive Producers: Nicholas Briggs and Jason Haigh-Ellery
❉ ‘Doctor Who: The Lovecraft Invasion’ is out now from www.bigfinish.com. It will be exclusively available to buy from the Big Finish website until August 31st 2020, and on general sale after this date.
❉ 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.