For the 14th installment of the Big Finish Monthly range, for the second month in a row, we do another weird thing: we get a Penguin as the Doctor’s companion. Now, if you’re familiar with the comic range, this won’t be a huge surprise, but for newcomers to Doctor Who, this is another out-of-the-blue moment. The last installment introduced Professor Bernice Summerfield from The New Adventures range, and now we have a comic book character turning up. Considering this is an audio range, this is a great idea because we can do things with the audio medium that we simply could not do on television. But if you ask me, a penguin is a weird choice of companion. Ok, so he’s a shapeshifter but the real question is: why would a shapeshifter decide the best possible choice of body is that of a penguin?? I can’t imagine him joining the Doctor for “a whole lot of running” with flippers! How awkward would that be?
Robert Jezek plays Frobisher, the penguin, and as happy I was to have this character make an appearance with Big Finish, I found his voice very annoying. It’s safe to say that I’m a bit fond of the sound of British characters, but I felt like he was trying to sound like a New Yorker, and not quite getting it right. If my memory holds, this character was a private eye, so I’m guessing he was going for a 1920’s “gumshoe”, but I just couldn’t get into it! I still liked the character but really did not love the voice acting. By contrast, Sam Kelly as Eugene Tacitus, the scribe, was fantastic. Kelly also voices “the Boy” and that was phenomenally unsettling in the best possible way. Roberta Taylor plays Berengaria and she is over-the-top in a way that I would not have liked had it not been for the nature of this story, which I’ll get to in a moment. Plus she has a wonderful name: Berengaria. Just say it! For the style of this story, she was perfect! Childeric, played by Peter Guinness, reminded me immensely of Paul Darrow’s Avon from Blake’s 7, with all the dripping evil that Darrow was able to convey. And Colin Baker is never anything less than fantastic! In short, the the voice cast was stellar (with the exception of Frobisher).
When I was listening to this, I had a thought: this was a production. It wasn’t that it was really that different from any other, but there was a sense of something bigger. Doctor Who is often at its best when it does something unique and the nearest match to this story came from the 1960’s when Patrick Troughton was the Doctor. This story takes place in what feels like a medieval castle, but as the story builds, the nature of reality is brought into question. We are in territory akin to the Land of Fiction here; The Mind Robber. No, I don’t mean to say it is the Land of Fiction, but we are dealing with a questionable reality. The Doctor and Frobisher are the only real elements of the story. I confess, when it was revealed that the TARDIS was teaching Frobisher a lesson, I was a little bummed. Why now? Why was Frobisher singled out for a school lesson? And after all the recent Twilight Zone episodes beating us about the head with “lessons”, this was a bit too “on the nose” but that did not take away from an otherwise impressive story. I can’t speak much about the cliffhangers either because the story was so thought provoking, I lost track of them. There is one cliffhanger that was more or less a repeat of one from The Face of Evil, but that did not hurt the episodes at all. There’s a sense of humor here too. Right from the opening, the guards make us laugh with their initially domineering presence that quickly gives way to an “oh, alright then…” and they move on. It’s clear that we are in for something different with this story.
While this is not the best of the range, the voice acting is nearly perfect and the plot is intriguing. Due to the twist this one offers, I really don’t want to say a whole lot, because it is worth listening to for the excitement. And there’s a bonus; something I only learned while writing this. There’s a 25 second easter egg at the end of the disc! I stopped the disc when the “coming soon” bit came up, so I missed it initially. Thankfully, while looking up the actors names, I noticed a note about this one. Thankfully, my disc is right next to me, so I put it in the player to see what all the fuss was about and, while completely silly, it’s also tremendously fun! A nice addition!
There are better Big Finish stories, I don’t deny it. But I love the experimental nature of this one and the ontological exploration we get from it. I can recommend this one highly. Now I just hope I can get used to Frobisher’s voice for his next appearance… whenever that happens! ML