Some of us might argue that the character of Rory Williams was continually given short shrift during his time in Doctor Who. His role as a companion seemed to either be to die, or as comic relief. This despite the fact that he was someone with knowledge and experience stretching back almost 2000 years. That made no sense.
For those of you unaware, due to a hefty plot device, Rory spent almost two millennia as ‘The Lone Centurion’, a legendary and heroic figure set to guard a treasure called The Pandorica. Very little has been revealed about Rory’s life during this time. But that is set to change. With The Lone Centurion: Volume One, Arthur Darvill, joined by a fantastic cast, returns to the character to bring to life some of his adventures during this secrecy-shrouded time.
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The Lone Centurion: Volume One is comprised of three stories, each with a different writer. ‘Gladiator’ by David Llewellyn, sees Rory enter into the service of the Imperial household and quickly become an unwitting pawn in a dangerous game of the highest stakes. In ‘The Unwilling Assassin’ by Sarah Ward, poor Rory has now become a paid killer, despite the fact he’s prepared to do whatever he can to not actually assassinate anyone. (This story also contains perhaps the greatest line in the set as we discover the soothsayer lives just off Cobblers Street.)
The title of the third story, ‘I, Rorius’, written by Jacqueline Rayner, should let you know just how well Rory has done for himself. Each story also has a cast interview which brings some level of insight into the process, but not much more than you should expect from a group of actors talking for a few minutes at the end of a long day’s recording.
Big Finish set out their stall straight away. The stories are littered with pop and geek culture references. Without wanting to stray too far into spoiler territory, suffice it to say that we are treated to a slathering of comically anachronistic translations (“Don’t judge a codex by its cover”), a snigger at the weird food of ancient Rome (flamingo tongues), and a near-as-dammit lifting of a chunk of the “What have the Romans ever done for us” scene in Monty Python’s Life of Brian. The most surreal moment must surely be a ten second Street Fighter II pastiche, complete with 16 bit fighting music and special move voice samples. All of which happens within the first few minutes.
We quickly realise that these stories are going to be weighted heavily in favour of comedy rather than some of Big Finish’s more serious offerings. Given Rory’s role in the TARDIS, this shouldn’t come as a surprise. He was always something of a comic character, though at times it is something of a shock that Rory doesn’t start off each adventure addressing the audience directly with a jaunty ‘The Prologue…’.
Some fans of the character may be a little disappointed that Rory’s solo outing is set in a world of farce rather than a more realistic or gritty one, but it does make sense. Between Rory deciding to guard the Pandorica and reappearing as a museum guard, almost 2000 years passed. Yet his character has hardly changed. It’s fair to assume that some amount of cynicism and world weariness might creep into most hearts in that time, and so it might be best to dull the edge of time with the sander of comedy. Carry On Lone Centurion!
But who wants to see Rory in a Snyderesque cut anyway? He is, above all else, a decent human being. We know that his greatest wish is simply to be allowed to love Amy and help other people. This story is set not long after the ancient Briton section of ‘The Pandorica Opens’, so Rory has yet to fully develop into The Lone Centurion. As Darvill himself says during one of the cast interviews, at this stage Rory isn’t really a companion he’s “on the outside, looking in”.
The only thing he really has going for him is his inherent niceness. Logically, this leads to a protagonist who is going to spend most of his time doing all he can trying to avoid any kind of action. A writer’s instinct might be to change the character, and instead let Rory become a lean, mean, fighting machine. Yet that temptation is thankfully side-stepped here. Instead we follow Rory just trying to muddle through, doing his best to be a good guy in a world of assassinations, slavery, and rampant imperialism. This is the obvious territory of farce, and it works wonderfully.
The production values are fantastic, and it’s hard to believe it was recorded in people’s homes. The technology used enabled the cast to work together in real time rather than recording their lines separately. This added level of interaction brings a life to the recordings that manages to lift the listener on a wave of joy coming from the fun the cast are having together.
Speaking of the cast, they do a magnificent job. Big Finish have, in essence, built what could be described as a rep company. This means they have a group of top quality actors who are used to working together, which allows them to produce great work in a relatively short amount of time. But even amongst these actors a few names stand out.
Obviously Arthur Darvill needs to be highlighted. There is a feeling of him finding his feet at times, but by the second story he is back in full flow, and it’s so nice to hear those slightly rueful, put upon tones once again. Terry Molloy, who can only be described as Doctor Who royalty, manages to steal every scene he’s in during his turn as a soothsayer and poet in ‘The Unwilling Assassin’. We’re left with no idea how Joseph Tweedale managed to work from home, as he would have been chewing through every piece of scenery he came near, as he gloriously hams it up as Caesar. But the name to herald must be Joanna Van Kampen, who is spot on in her role of Augusta.
If you were hoping for stories of Rory wading through rivers of blood as he manfully slays armies, this will disappoint. But fans of the character who are happy to travel through the lighter side of the Whoniverse will enjoy these well written and acted stories, where listeners are able to enjoy in-jokes and clever references, whilst embracing the return of a long-lost hero and friend.
Rory. Is. Back!
Doctor Who: The Lone Centurion Volume One is out now from Big Finish.