Now this is a slightly odd thing. After getting our first Peter Davison and Colin Baker solo adventures from the Big Finish Doctor Who range, I would have rather naturally expected that a Sylvester McCoy adventure would follow next. However, it seems that the Seventh Doctor will just have to wait until next time, because Peter Davison’s Doctor is back again instead. And this time he has brought Nyssa along for the ride. But is it a ride worth taking? Read on to find out.
“There is no heart in this place, only shadows.”
Episode 1: Arriving in Alaska, the Fifth Doctor and Nyssa detect a strange energy pattern, and view plumes of smoke rising just over the horizon. Before they can investigate, they are forced to dematerialise in order to avoid a collision. Thirty years later the TARDIS sets down in the same place, apparently having locked on to the re-emergence of the unknown energy pattern. The Doctor and Nyssa set off into the icy wastes, heading towards a strange building that has been constructed right into the surrounding Alaskan terrain. What is the purpose of this ominous structure? And why does Nyssa have an uneasy feeling that they are being watched?
There is something rather strange going on here. Of the initial batch of Big Finish Doctor Who audio releases, The Land of the Dead sits just behind Davison’s Phantasmagoria as my favourite outing so far. Okay, admittedly, we’re only four audio adventures in, but Peter Davison is my least favourite of the three Doctors initially granted an audio reprieve, and I also found his performance the least impressive in the initial outing The Sirens of Time. But while I still prefer Colin Baker’s performances overall, I find that Davison has not only found his voice remarkably well in his two stories since, but both the stories have been very enjoyable to listen to indeed.
Joining him this time around is the return of Sarah Sutton as a pre-plague Nyssa, who it must be said is probably my favourite of the Fifth Doctor’s companions. There are moments where Sutton’s performance wavers a bit, and she does sound noticeably older, which can’t really be helped, but on the whole she does a good job for her first time out. And much like Strickson’s Turlough in Phantasmagoria, it is nice that she has been given an active part to play in the adventure, rather than just being stuck in sidekicksville most of the time, as can so easily happen to the companions in Doctor Who stories.
Which brings us to the story’s supporting players. The good news is that there are no distractingly bad or crazily over-the-top performances here. In fact everyone is quite solid, if a touch unremarkable. If you want to get picky, our native characters do appear to have escaped from the good ship stereotype, Andrew Fettes’ Gaborik especially. And I can certainly see an argument being made that Lucy Campbell’s Monica tends to have taken up full time residence on the pricklier side of Annoying Lane.
However, to be perfectly honest, while I certainly recognised these factors along the way, they didn’t actually bother me or detract at all from my enjoyment of the story being told, nor were their efforts in any way grating. So while you could argue that the characters and performances on display here are all a bit cookie-cutter in nature, they still get the job done, and they do so without ever getting in the way of the narrative. To that end, they manage to accomplish all that is ever actually required of them. Which, as it turns out, was plenty good enough for me.
As the first episode unfolds, it is soon rather evident that this one is going to be a bit of a slower burn, and some may even find it a bit overly talky and exposition heavy. But for me, it is all in service of setting up a rather intriguing mystery, and it also doesn’t hurt matters any that Davison’s Doctor gets some great lines along the way, as well.
“Unsettling, isn’t it?”
Episode 2: After taking refuge inside the structure, The Doctor and Nyssa have acquainted themselves with the building’s few human residents, each of whom seems to be there for their own distinct purposes. One by one people seem to be falling prey to paranoias born out of their distant past, while within the stone walls something is stirring, aching to get free…
As things start to get into full swing, can I just take the time to remark once again how nice it is to have Nyssa back. A genuine smart companion for The Doctor, in every sense of the word.
And yes, I am struggling for much more to say. Such are the hazards of the entirely competent story that does everything entirely competently. Have I mentioned that I quite liked it yet? Ah, yes, I thought so. Moving on then.
“There can be no rest for us now.”
Episode 3: While The Doctor struggles to fight off the creatures that have been set loose within the building, Nyssa finds herself trapped at a nearby survey camp. And her companion is starting to act very strangely.
The story progresses along on it’s not-so-merry way, and suddenly something strikes me. I’m not sure exactly why, perhaps it is in part due to my love of horror fiction by the likes of H.P. Lovecraft and Clive Barker, but the realisation dawns that I am also quite taken by the idea of the Permian creatures as they lumber their way through this particular story. And while they are perhaps not the most startlingly original of monster ideas, they still manage to be one which has been brought to audio life here quite effectively. Besides which, Who’s best monsters were always riffs on existing myths and familiar tropes, only slightly twisted to fit into the specific needs and style of the show in a creative and entertaining way. And for my money, the Permians fit into that mould rather nicely.
Or maybe I just like the idea of big bone beasties in the dark. Yes Sigmund, sometimes a Permian is just a Permian.
“Your words mean nothing to me.”
Episode 4: As the truth of what really happened thirty years ago finally comes to light, The Doctor and Nyssa must find a way to destroy these ancient creatures once and for all.
And so it ends, with a bang, and not a whimper. Or maybe two bangs if the completely out of left field, and disturbingly skeevy, final line is any indication. Still, putting that to one side, I had a rather good time with this one. And while I suppose you could accuse the story of of being a touch routine, all in all I think scripter Stephen Cole has done a fine job here.
Something else that should be noted before I wind this up is that they have done a really nice job of setting the atmosphere in this story, with both the soundscape and the music really coming together nicely, and helping to give added depth to the story as it unfolds, injecting it with that much needed extra spark of life. A sense of atmosphere is something that sadly seems to be all too often overlooked these days, but when done right adds immeasurably to the impact and effectiveness of a story, and as such should never be undervalued. As such the work here, as it has been in most of the Big Finish Doctor Who audio that I have heard so far, really is to be commended.
There is, however, one caveat that must be made. The paint throwing sound effect during episode four is so bad that my ears have threatened to file an injunction against me for separation due to irreconcilable differences should I ever dare submit them to such torture again. Seriously, whoever listened to that effect and said “yeah, that sounds like paint being thrown“, please buy a new set of ears, before I have to.
Other than that, Peter Davison’s Doctor has delivered another winner. Will his, or my, luck continue?
Next up: Sylvester McCoy returns in The Fearmonger