❉ A must for fans of the queer Victorian misfit crime-fighters and their space potato butler!
‘I’ve had matters of heritage much on my mind of late.’
The Paternoster Gang, everybody’s favourite band of queer Victorian misfit crime-fighters from Doctor Who, are back again for their third Heritage box set from Big Finish Productions, and this time, it’s determined to live up to the subtitle. While previous sets have been content to offer up a series of standalone romps, with the occasional hints of something more, this third volume doubles down not only on big plot reveals, but emotional complications and focused themes. As a result, it winds up being the best set of adventures so far for the beloved characters of Jenny Flint, Strax, and Madame Vastra.
Loosely, this set takes on the theme of heritage by dividing itself into stories about the families of each of the leads. This all kicks off with the aptly named Family Matters, by rising Big Finish star Lisa McMullin, a story that both jump starts the plot arc for the series and introduces us to the family of lesbian ninja maid Jenny Flint. Because the characters of the Paternoster Gang are purely supporting figures on TV, their backgrounds have gone undeveloped, and McMullin’s script deserves great credit for creating an extremely believable background for her character, as well as some very good reasons for her to have left them to marry a lizard woman from the dawn of time. What’s more, it’s a family story that will feel very true to home to many LGBTQ fans, honestly tackling the struggles of coming out to a bad family and asserting one’s own identity in between and even during zany adventures with spaceships and dinosaurs.
The plot, such as it is, is pretty loose and pretty slight. There’s some shapeshifting aliens on the loose, Vastra tied up in a freak show run by Jenny’s parents, and traces of primordial energy from an unknown source. But while previous stories in the Heritage range have lived or died on the success of their simple romp plotting, Family Matters’ more intimate focus makes these events feel significantly larger. Jenny’s troubled past drives a compelling wedge between her and her wife, while Vastra herself gets hints of dark secrets of her own culture. With some deft character writing—and some deft levity in a great c-plot involving Strax raising a pet dinosaur—Family Matters is a highlight of the range, using small focus and deft tone juggling to meaningful effect. Jenny and Vastra’s proudly queer love has always been a major part of their fan-favourite status, and it’s rewarding to see a story about that experience.
The second story, relative newcomer Rob Valentine’s Whatever Remains, operates in a similar register to great effect. Nominally, this is a story about a vanished landowner, buried Silurian secrets, and a giant lizard. In practice, there’s barely a plot here, and what little there is is something resembling a cross between Scooby Doo, The Hound of Baskerville, and the fourth episode of Pyramids of Mars. Anyone looking for particularly radical or original plotting would do best looking elsewhere. But not every story needs clever twists and high concepts, and Whatever Remains is a delight. As in the previous story with Jenny’s parents, Vastra’s handling of Silurian secrets puts the couple in conflict, something which the script wisely realizes is the heart of the story. Jenny’s frustrations with Vastra make for sparkling drama, and their emotional resolution at the end is easily some of the best material either character has had.
Outside the character writing, however, the clear standout feature of this episode is the humour. Some of it’s quite niche — a certain subplot built entirely around how rubbish the effects in Warriors of the Deep are had me howling — but all of it is inspired. The highlight of it all is Strax’s subplot, involving an amorous admirer played by everyone’s favorite Slitheen, Annette Badland. I did not realise how desperately I needed to hear Strax confusedly fending for himself against a horny landlady, but Rob Valentine is clearly some kind of twisted genius. As with all the best comedy writing, there’s some wonderful escalations throughout, and no set-piece ever overstays its welcome. The unassuming nature of Whatever Remains’ plot means it could be easily overlooked, but the sharp comedy and emotional drama is perfectly pitched, and says to me that Rob Valentine will be a Big Finish name to watch out for.
The set concludes in Roy Gill’s Truth and Bone, a story which brings all the simmering themes and arc details into full focus. Rival gang members Tom and Stonn, gay human/Sontaran couple from the Bloomsbury Bunch, are back, as are ancient forces that had best be forgotten… just not living dead mummies, to Strax’s disappointment!
It’s Strax’s turn in the backstory hot seat, as Truth and Bone takes on a premise fans have often demanded for the character: what would happen if the Sontarans came back for him? Those hoping for a dark story of divided loyalties will be disappointed, as Strax is never once tempted to return to the ranks of the military that made him. But as someone who always thought those fan suggestions didn’t ring true, I’m far happier with what this story does. Strax and Stonn’s Sontraran trials don’t drive them into dark places, but rather offer them a chance to take stock of who they’ve become, and assert themselves against their pasts, just as Jenny and Vastra have in the previous stories. Once again, it’s handled expertly and with a lot of heart, leaving all the characters in question richer than when the set began.
And on a grander scale, the mythology of the series comes into full view at last. The true motivation of the Sontarans in coming to Earth here is a strong beat, and there’s some compelling esoteric ideas in play, from Silurian gods to cosmic tentacled beings. Perhaps the highlight of this is the range’s own take on Sherlock Holmes’ ‘seven per cent solution,’ in an incident involving Vastra ingesting the remains of a deceased Silurian deity; there’s so much strange, mad imagination going into the storytelling here. However, I was less sold on the incorporation of world-building from Sixth Doctor lost story The First Sontarans toward the climax. Nominally, I feel these new series ranges should be designed for newer fans to Big Finish, and even I was a bit thrown trying to remember the events of an audio from eight years ago, though the most important parts are conveyed clearly enough.
Overall, Truth and Bone is a third success in a row for an unassuming but thoroughly appealing box set. Gill seems to be becoming one of the range’s defining writers; he’s the first to get a second story for the series, and will be back again next set. To me, this is great news; I’m fond of his writing, and the range suits his more magical aesthetics and queer character writing perfectly.
Production on the set as a whole continues to be to Big Finish’s high standard. Neve McIntosh and Catrin Stewart have comfortably settled into the world of voice acting, and Dan Starkey continues to be a scene-stealing presence through voice alone. Annette Badland, oas mentioned earlier, was a clear highlight among guest performances, though I’d also like to highlight Christopher Ryan, whose return as Stonn offers a great opportunity to juggle Sontaran obtuseness with emotional vulnerability in his relationship to his boyfriend, something he exceeds at. Beyond performances, the soundscapes, from bustling mummy viewing parties to dank caves, are evocative, and Joe Kraemer’s score has given the range a distinct audio identity, even if choral chants of ‘Sontar-ha!’ in the background of comedy scenes were probably a more delightful idea in theory than in practice.
Overall, The Paternoster Gang: Heritage 3 is a clear highlight of the series so far, with some very simple stories elevated by a tight thematic and emotional focus. The direction of the plot is clear now, leaving the fourth set some exciting directions to run in. But more than that, this story functions on its own terms, with three strong tales each exploring the experience of asserting your identity against a heritage that may not be all you want it to be. You could slip into this set off the back of the previous two and find your understanding of it enriched, or you could jump right in here, without too much confusion. Either way, this set is a must for any fans of the Paternoster Gang, enriching the characters and their bonds with each other across three deceptively simple but enormously rich adventures.
‘Normal? Who would ever want that?’ asks Vastra. Well, certainly not me. I’ll take a lesbian maid, her lizard wife, and their potato butler from space any day.
❉ ‘The Paternoster Gang: Heritage 3’ was released in May 2020. It will be exclusively available to buy from the Big Finish website until July 31st 2020, and on general sale after this date.
❉ 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.