The Shadow of the Scourge is the 13th release for Big Finish and wow, was I stunned when it turned out to be another Sylvester McCoy episode. Having just finished The Fires of Vulcan, the last thing I expected was another McCoy episode. So let’s get the complaints out of the way first. Professor Bernice Summerfield needed an introduction. Yes, I read every one of The New Adventure so I knew who Bernice was, but what about people who came in fresh, having never experienced that wonderful range of books from the “Wilderness Years”? The last Big Finish ended with Mel and the Doctor traveling together and the very next one has the Doctor with Ace and Benny. Shouldn’t someone have said something about it? But barring that, I can’t complain about anything else in this story and here’s why…
Cliffhangers: even though the first one is reminiscent of Tom Baker’s The Invasion of Time, this time handing over the planet Earth to an alien invasion, it’s the shock of it and the casual manner in which the master manipulator does it. It’s holds up regardless of what has come before. Then with each subsequent cliffhanger, it just got better and better. When the Doctor’s manipulation fails, we get a hint that he might be up against something far more powerful than he is! That’s scary. The fact that these creatures are bugs of some kind enhances the fear factor and the sounds of them ripping through a body as they possess it, is rather horrible. (Based on the sounds, I’d say the people would not get better from that anytime soon, but they seem to do a reasonably good job at the end of the story!)
The cast is great, but this time it’s the main cast that carries it. Yes, there’s an entire batch of others that do a good job, but it’s battle-hardened Ace, Snide Benny, and Doctor Misjudgment that carry the day. Actually McCoy does do terrified well, but he does go back and forth from believable to caricature. Like Jim Carey, McCoy has a very versatile face, but when he’s acting all over the emotional map, I’m pretty convinced his facial muscles all think it’s Cinco de Mayo and the party has been going on for hours, as they all dance their own jig across his face. I say this as if I can see him, but that’s because I can “see” him in my minds eye. Is this a good thing for audio? Absolutely, but I don’t know how well his face translates when trying to convey terror. It’s not the first time that his eccentric facial tics take away from his “agony” and make him look more comical but, knowing the stakes, the episode plays out without a hitch and I have to give full kudos to the main cast.
Another thing I’m very happy about with this story is that there’s an allegory here. The Scourge are basically self-doubt, depression, and anxiety. They are a physical manifestation from another dimension and they can affect the Doctor just as much as a human, and when they are defeated, we learn that they are still always there. When they attack the humans, they focus on everyone’s weaknesses. Sure, we all have weaknesses, and when someone makes us focus on them, they are daunting. They are depressing and make us feel less than we really are. The allegory here is that we are always fighting them. We can’t give in to those darker emotions. And then we get the key to victory: love. So, call me a sap, but the allegory is beautiful: love can defeat doubt! Yeah, I can like this episode. I’d call it the best so far!
On top of that, I get my much-loved continuity. Benny sees the Eighth Doctor while visiting the Doctor’s mind. And remember, this was recorded in 2000, 13 years before the 50th anniversary special so when the Scourge tell the Doctor that they see he has many aspects, “some of them hidden”, this would have been pre-John Hurt by over a decade. And yet, like magic, that line was a hint of things to come! We learn years later, he does, in fact, have a hidden aspect!
I’m delighted that Big Finish had such a powerful episode for McCoy! It’s got a few moments of humor too. They’ve finally done it; Big Finish has hit a new height. Let’s see if they can maintain it! ML