You wait ages for Christopher Eccleston to reprise his role as TV’s errant Time Lord, and then before you know it, a second set of audios is along hot on the heels of the first. Time waits for no man, it seems, and especially not this one.
Big Finish’s Doctor Who: The Ninth Doctor Adventures saw the return of Eccleston to the role sixteen years after he last graced our screens in Doctor Who, and it was just like he had never actually left the TARDIS. Thankfully, the gap between Eccleston’s appearances for Big Finish is significantly shorter than that, so a mere three months after his very first outing on audio, we have the Ninth Doctor back at the helm, setting a course for more timey-wimey shenanigans.
The title of the set is taken from the sign fixed to the door of the ship’s Police Box exterior, only instead of the officers and cars promised, here the calls for help are being answered by a 900+ year old Gallifreyan with a special penchant for saving the day. Unlike the previous set – ‘Ravagers’ – which had one continuous tale being told across its three parts, here we get a trio of separate stories, helping demonstrate the full range of the series’ format, by taking us across time and space.
When Russell T. Davies was showrunner for the programme’s revival, he had a preferred pattern of having his series open with a contemporary Earthbound story, a futuristic tale, and one set in the past; Big Finish would seem to have taken that to heart this time round, as Davies’ basic idea has been used, with ‘Respond To All Calls’ giving us a modern day adventure, followed up by one taking place in Earth’s history, and finally an episode which carries us away into space and the far flung future.
The opener – ‘Girl, Deconstructed’, by Lisa McMullin – sees the sudden disappearance of dozens of kids; one such case is investigated by Missing Persons DC Jana Lee (Pearl Appleby), with a girl called Marnie (Mirren Mack) appearing to have run away after a row with her dad (Forbes Masson). However, the Doctor is already on the scene, and he seems to feel Marnie – as well as the other vanished children – may actually be a lot closer to home than anyone suspects…
‘Girl, Deconstructed’ is a very strong start for the set, seeing Eccleston and Appleby playing well off each other here, and forming an ersatz Doctor and companion relationship which works beautifully (with the Ninth Doctor travelling alone at this point, not having yet met up with Rose Tyler). Having a small cast of characters and actors makes the story feel very tight and contained, which helps move things along at a fair old pace, and ensures your focus is held firmly upon the core of the plot, without any distractions.
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If there is anything which mars ‘Girl, Deconstructed’ at all, it would have to be that it unfortunately does feel very strongly – albeit unintentionally – like a do-over of the 2006 episode ‘Fear Her’, which again dealt with the idea of a lot of children going missing, and the reasons behind this in both tales are quite similar. However, as ‘Fear Her’ was a rather weak story, ‘Girl, Deconstructed’ ends up being a far superior product, so it actually manages not to suffer too much from having such a comparable idea at its heart.
The filling in this Eccleston sandwich is ‘Fright Motif’, by Tim Foley. Set in post-War Paris, a musician named Artie Berger (Damian Lynch) seems to have lost all of his confidence in his ability to play. However, something terrible is stalking Artie through the city, bringing death and destruction in its wake. Only a mysterious so-called piano tuner – who has appeared from out of the blue – seems to know what is going on, but is he going to be able to save the day, or will Artie’s song reach a sudden crescendo?
For such a sensually charged period, coming after the major conflict of World War II, and delving into the Jazz club scene of Gay Paree, sexuality does play a significant part of ‘Fright Motif’. When Doctor Who returned to TV screens, it openly embraced gay, bi, pan, and other lifestyles, which was very progressive for a programme of its type at the time; ’Fright Motif’ features the sexuality of some of the characters in a non-sensational way, yet you can only feel that the current iteration of the show would be accused of being ‘woke’ by a certain section of fandom if it did the same thing.
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Much like ‘Girl, Deconstructed’, ‘Fright Motif’ rather suffers from sadly being too close to one of the televised episodes – in this case, Richard Curtis’ ‘Vincent And The Doctor’. With a creative figure being crippled by depression, losing all their mojo, and finding a deadly creature being drawn to them in an historic French locale, it feels just too akin to what came before. The execution is also hampered by Lynch’s somewhat lacklustre turn as Artie, which – ironically, for someone who is playing a musician – is rather flat and one-note.
Perhaps the strongest one of the three episodes – narrowly edging out ‘Girl, Deconstructed’ – is Timothy X. Atack’s tale ‘Planet Of The End’. Answering a distress call, the Doctor is drawn to visit the deserted mausoleum world of Occasus – deserted, that is, apart from a resident AI (Margaret Clunie), who has been starting to develop a personality. The Doctor soon discovers that plans are afoot, ancient schemes which could see him fighting a desperate battle for his current and future lives, to prevent his permanent residency…
With Eccleston’s Doctor not having a permanent sidekick or travelling companion at this point, a real joy is hearing him having a range of temporary assistants and chums to team up with, giving him a range of different personality types to interact with and bounce off. Clunie’s AI character is rather an endearing one, and her gradual self-actualisation across the course of the hour is simply wonderful to hear; she also works well with Eccleston, and they do make a magnificent pairing, leaving you wanting to hear more of the duo.
Eccleston himself is consistently good across all the episodes in ‘Respond To All Calls’, but he truly shines in ‘Planet Of The End’, being given some material here which really stretches him in a number of ways, giving him scope to deliver us a real barnstormer of a performance. If there was any doubt about his commitment to reprising the Doctor on audio, ‘Planet Of The End’ should put paid to such thoughts once and for all, as he attacks his role with great energy and gusto, showing why it is such a shame we have all had to wait to have his Doctor’s potential fully realised.
‘Respond To All Calls’ is another winner from Big Finish, and an even more perfect jumping-on point for casual listeners than with Eccleston’s audio debut in May’s ‘Ravagers’. With an uplift in overall quality evident here, we can only hope it continues for the remainder of Eccleston’s current run, and we get many more audio adventures to come. Much like the Ninth Doctor, we are all ears.
Doctor Who: The Ninth Doctor Adventures – ‘Respond To All Calls’ is out now from Big Finish.