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Doctor Who – Vortex Ice/Cortex Fire – Audio Drama Review

Following on from the Big Finish release ‘Alien Heart/Dalek Soul’, the second one of their trilogy comprising a pair of two-part adventures – ‘Vortex Ice/Cortex Fire’ – moves us on an incarnation, and brings us the unfairly maligned Sixth Doctor, as played by Colin Baker.

Never given a fair crack of the whip while he was on our screens during a truncated run in the mid-1980s, Big Finish has done a great deal to rehabilitate the reputation of this iteration of the Time Lord, allowing us the chance to reappraise his character, and take another look at Baker’s portrayal of the role. One of the benefits of an audio drama is that you don’t actually get to see the awful costume, so you can focus upon the writing and the acting, without having that distraction to draw your attention.

Baker has really come into his own in the Big Finish audio series, and demonstrated with consummate ease not only what a good choice he was for the role, but also what he could have achieved if given the right material on screen; sadly, his Sixth Doctor was written variously as coward, sadist, braggart, and Beau Brummell on a cosmic scale. Alas, Baker’s twinkle wasn’t enough during his two seasons on TV to win over fans or audiences, and he was unceremoniously kicked out of the role in 1986, without even a proper farewell.

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Big Finish has given old Sixie the sendoff he deserved, with a proper regeneration story to wrap up his era, as well as some original audio-only companions, one of whom – Philippa ‘Flip’ Jackson (played by Lisa Greenwood) – is featured here. With her Estuary English tones, as well as her uncomplicated characterisation, Flip is a breath of fresh air, and the perfect foil for Baker’s Doctor, as we see him here taking her firmly under his wing and wanting to impress her with the sights of the cosmos, so he suits the role of galactic tour guide and tutor.

‘Vortex Ice’ comes from the imagination of Jonathan Morris, who’s known for writing some mind-bending and intelligent tales, both for audio and in print form. He fully exploits the potential of the series’ format, making full use of time travel and all its inherent risks and complications. To put it simply, Morris was actually doing timey-wimey stuff long before Steven Moffat’s run, and also does it far better. Moffat has always come over in his writing as trying to be too clever by seven-eighths, and has a tendency to let the ideas get away from him.

Morris, on the other hand, nails it every time, and in his tale of a mystery deep in the bowels of a Mexican mine, gives us a complex storyline; it makes perfect sense, but it demands your concentration, and it also requires more than one listening to make sure you catch all the nuances and reveals. It has more twists and turns than a twisty-turny thing, and is just the sort of tale that would work well on television. The only real criticism is the somewhat disposable nature of the supporting cast of characters, who seem perhaps more expendable than usual.

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‘Cortex Fire’ is a fitting companion piece, due to its focus on another element, and Ian Potter’s tale brings us a high-concept sci-fi adventure, taking us to the off-world locale of Festin, the site of an imminent grand cosmic lightshow. However, in the best tradition of the series, an attempt to innocently enjoy a spectacle ends up with the Doctor and his companion becoming firmly embroiled in some wrongdoing of the highest order, and having to thwart the machinations of the tale’s villainous presence.

The soundscape is reminiscent of Blade Runner, not only in terms of effectively conjuring up visions of skyscrapers and anti-gravity vehicles zipping around all over the place, but also in its music score, which is part Vangelis, part Radiophonic Workshop. The Urge – an entity trying to return to its own dimension – does make a pleasant change from the standard type of gloating megalomaniac baddie, and keeps things sufficiently interesting and tense. In all, we have a great double bill here of strong stories, which are certainly worthy of your attention.

Doctor Who: Vortex Ice/Cortex Fire is available now from Big Finish.

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