❉ Simon Guerrier has written one of the most compelling, and strangest, Big Finish sets of the year.
Big Finish has always been a brand that includes very different kind of stories. There’s your mainstream Doctor Who for the people, of course – but also an endless supply of really niche really weird stuff. Which, incidentally, I live for. Keep your Daleks, I want Vienna season 5. I want a whole boxset of Benny Summerfield, her son and Ruth Leonidas flying around space. And I also want more Graceless. Which, oh joy of joy, I got. 2020 has its perks, sometimes.
Graceless is hard to describe – a spin-off spun from a trilogy of Fifth Doctor audios, which started as a bit of an adult, “throw everything at the wall and see what sticks” approach (basically Big Finish’s Torchwood before Big Finish did Torchwood), with mixed result – but found an incredibly compelling voice of its own in its fourth and final boxset, possibly one of the best things ever released by BF. The reasoning is pretty much this: if your main characters are all-powerful time-travelling goddesses/twin sisters, what’s stopping them from rewriting history? And that’s how Graceless became essentially a series of open-ended morality plays about changing history: can you be justified in doing so, and what is the cost you pay for it? Imagine the deconstructive bend of something like Children of Earth, except expressed through the aesthetics of the weirdest possible edge of Doctor Who, that strange, protean lake in which Class or Kill the Moon bathe like mutant albatrosses.
And now it’s back – crashing into Doctor Who, in a boxset penned by the series’ only writer since its inception, Simon Guerrier. Essentially bringing its own brand of morality in conflict with the Doctor, who’s tasked by Leela to stop the sisters’ history-altering rampage. Unsurprisingly, it makes for some fantastic drama – there’s very little anchoring it to the Classic Series, despite the appearances: it’s an utterly modern drama, asking deep questions about whether the basic premise of the show, the morality of the Doctor, is even viable in the first place.
The first episode, The Garden of Storms, is a perfect encapsulation of that approach: it starts off as a rather traditional slice of sci-fi satire, borrowing its premise from Logan’s Run – but it veers off that path very quickly by having the Doctor confronted with his usual methods being inefficient in challenging a regime that isn’t a tyranny, but something willfully desired by the population (following an interesting trend present in Five’s TV era, which often emphasized his powerlessness). It asks a really interesting question: isn’t the Doctor, arriving fast and toppling tyrants, ultimately kind of more of a show-off than a real force of good? Isn’t his brand of progressivism more about aesthetics than actual progress, especially compared to Abby and Zara’s handling of things: a long, dull process of integrating themselves into a culture and changing it from the inside – the slow grind that echoes real-life activism, good without flashy rewards and results. Those are some pretty cutting questions to address in a size of expanded universe Doctor Who! And yet Guerrier manages it effortlessly – there’s just tons of memorable, quality material here – macabre poetry in a forest filled with the remains of the dead, some great jokes (the bit about cutting the lines is delicious) and beautifully pointed character moments – Leela especially is extremely well-served by the set, which feels like it respects her and affords her a weight and wisdom unburdened by any “noble savage” tropes.
And yet the second story, The Moonrakers, is even better. Explaining exactly why would require spoiling some of the cleverest structural twists that Big Finish has pulled in years, so I won’t, but trust me, this is the good stuff. It creates a fascinating world, exploring these human free states on the moon, complete with giant burrowing worm-like transports; and then throws a bunch of pacifist Sontarans into the mix. It’s maybe the best Sontaran story ever written, in a lot of ways – connecting deeply with the original thematic complexities Holmes wrote into The Time Warrior, and giving them a real sense of three-dimensional identity, as a complex civilisation with its own agency and goals. Sontarans talking about the virtue of art is a wondrous treat for the ears, it really is – and it’s of course in the service of a fascinating morality play about cultures clashing, and how the Doctor can try and negotiate such a situation. It’s a truly masterful script, one of Guerrier’s best in a long career filled with fascinating experiments.
The set concludes with The People Made of Smoke (a nice node to the final monologue of Survival) – which, after two episodes that mix the aesthetics of Who and Graceless perfectly, does shatter this balance by veering way too much on the Who side, large-scale invasion by scary monsters and all that. It’s not badly-done, the smoke creatures from the title are a pretty interesting and scary threat (although the voice filter on their dialogue is really overbearing), but it doesn’t really feel like it has the moral nuanced and complexity of the first two thirds. Still, there is some very nice bits of queer representation, and it ends on a very strong note, throwing some delightful spanners in the wheels of Who continuity, and wrapping its themes into a very neat bow – there is a genuine beauty in those moments, a touching reflection on sacrifice, history, and what Who can and can’t accomplish.
Overall, The Fifth Doctor Adventures – Wicked Sisters is undoubtedly one of the most compelling, and strangest, sets of the year: a thoroughly modern and ambitious take on the aesthetics and ethics of Who that feels justified in standing near to your Stranded and Lovecraft invasions as proofs of what the show can be in a new decade.
❉ Doctor Who: The Fifth Doctor Adventures – Wicked Sisters is now available to own, exclusively from the Big Finish website, until 31 December 2020. Price: £19.99 (CD), £16.99 (Digital download).
❉ 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.