Coming after their earlier releases ‘Alien Heart/Dalek Soul’ and ‘Vortex Ice/Cortex Fire‘, Big Finish’s trilogy of Doctor Who releases comprised a pair of two-part adventures – recently offered as a part of a promotional offer in their big twentieth birthday celebrations – draws to a climax with ‘Shadow Planet/World Apart’, which features the last of the classic TV Doctors, Sylvester McCoy.
At the time of his casting all the way back in 1987, McCoy was rather a controversial pick, coming predominantly from a comic background, as well as featuring on kids’ TV programmes. Taking his name from a stage act he performed – ‘Sylveste McCoy, The Human Bomb’ (no ‘r’ to begin with – it came later on), the erstwhile Percy James Patrick Kent-Smith of Dunoon (yes, being a Scottish Doctor – in the days before one Peter Capaldi took the role – was seen as a bone of contention) played the role up to the end of the show’s run in 1989. He was – until 1996’s TV Movie with Paul McGann – thought to be the last person who’d ever get to play the role.
However, thanks to the ‘wilderness years’ (which is how the fans refer to the period when the series was off-air), and by virtue of McCoy being the last Doctor seen on our screens, his Seventh incarnation was the one who actually ended up being the one explored most, in comic strip tales, original novels, and – since 1999, courtesy of Big Finish – audio plays. As well as on-screen companion Ace (Sophie Aldred), McCoy’s Doctor has also had a range of brand new friends who’ve accompanied him in his various comic, book, and audio adventures, one of whom is featured here – Thomas Hector ‘Hex’ Schofield (Philip Olivier).
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Hex – a nurse from St. Gart’s Brookside Hospital in 2021 – turned up for the first time in 2004’s ‘The Harvest’, and joined the Doctor and Ace in their adventures through time and space. Olivier is best known for his role as Tinhead in Channel 4’s soap Brookside, which ended the year before he took up with Big Finish, and has gone on to take a lead role in their recent audio revival of the BBC’s Star Cops, from 1987, just like McCoy’s debut. Olivier is, bless him, a professional Scouser – he does one thing, but he does it well. You aren’t going to get him playing Hamlet anytime soon, but then you wouldn’t expect him to either.
He certainly works well with both McCoy and Aldred, which is particularly evident in both stories here, as Ace and Hex end up being paired off together, with ‘World Apart’ being a two-hander for much of the tale’s second part. It’s easy to accept this as being a continuation of McCoy’s era on screen, which properly ended almost 30 years ago now (barring his brief return in the TV Movie, to regenerate), and there is plenty of wiggle room to believe that the Seventh Doctor had years – if not decades – of exploits before his eventual demise in an alleyway in San Francisco, so this fits in that gap nicely.
Both tales have unusual planets as their central theme. AK Benedict’s ‘Shadow Planet’ takes place on Unity, a world with a psychic core, which has been exploited by the Unity Corporation as part of their money-making scheme to try and unify the disparate sides of people’s psyches – but at what cost? Scott Handcock’s ‘World Apart’ follows straight on from that story, and features a planet which is the spatio-temporal equivalent of Brigadoon – and landing on there seems to be a one-way ticket, as there’s plenty of evidence that no-one who’s visited Nirvana has ever been able to leave again…
Both tales perfectly evoke the feel of the Seventh Doctor’s era, with McCoy given a chance to play both master manipulator and clown, and never being anything less than spot-on. Aldred and Olivier spark off each other, particularly while separated from the Doctor and the TARDIS in ‘World Apart’, and not only having to find a way to survive, but Hex also struggling to try and come to terms with his burgeoning feelings for Ace. The guest cast – as ever, with Big Finish’s output – are excellent, with Belinda Lang (of 2point4 Children) and Nickolas Grace (best known as the Sheriff of Nottingham in ITV’s Robin Of Sherwood) delivering perfectly pitched turns in ‘Shadow Planet’.
A perfect way to round out a very strong and capable trilogy, as well as a good look at what Big Finish are capable of doing, it certainly doesn’t cost the Earth to see how they’re delivering out-of-this world drama so consistently. You could do worse than to try these tales to help fill a Doctor-less 2019. There’s no time like the present.
Doctor Who – Shadow Planet/World Apart is available now from Big Finish.