I’ll open with the reminder that I have been very cautious taking these CDs off my shelf so that I don’t see which one I’m about to listen to next. So when this story started with the opening theme from the 1996 movie, I knew I had hit the first of the McGann stories. I think McGann is a fantastic guy. Having met him twice, he’s amazingly likable and easy to talk to, like an old friend, and for this medium, it could not be better because frankly, McGann has a phenomenal voice. Unfortunately, this also meant Charley was about to turn up. Having heard India Fisher in Winter for the Adept, I was dreading this day. Thankfully, this is one of those times where my memory was not as good as I had thought.
The story opens with the Doctor doing a LOT of talking by himself inside the TARDIS. Hearing McGann speak is great. Hearing so much monologue yet again reminds me that sometimes, there needs to be a better way to convey things in a story. It feels too much like the writers don’t know what to do with the time. When the Doctor encounters vortisaurs, (basically time-pterodactyls), I can appreciate his “talking at them” but then most of the rest of it feels like “hey, we need to fill some space, so he should talk out loud to himself…”. Not the way to open McGann’s CD run.
Once the story proper begins, after the second run of the opening music (I guess one was to tell us this is a McGann story, while the other told us the prologue was over), we discover that the Doctor is on the R101, the doomed airship that crashed in October of 1930. So right away we know we are on one of those missions where the outcome is already destined. But there’s a complication: Charley Pollard is not supposed to be on the ship.
One of the things modern Doctor Who got in the habit of, which I loathe, is name dropping. The Doctor does this as if seeing if a would-be companion will believe him or not; a test of sorts, to say “you either think I’m mad and run away, or you run into my arms and we can travel the universe together”. Tiddlywinks with the Tsarina, Vladimir’s pajamas and Geronimo are all mentioned because the Doctor has to prove to the companion, and apparently the audience, that he is a time traveler. He also mentions the time he spent with Mary Shelley when they were writing ghost stories (leading to the story, Frankenstein) and a book by Agatha Christie. Don’t misunderstand, this is all minor and most of it is finished by the end of part one, but it gets tedious that we go through this with every new companion. I mean, just hand them a survey with tick boxes and ask them to fill it out for review upon entry into the TARDIS. “Ah, this one believes me… perhaps she’d like to travel with me!”
Once we get past those annoyances though, we are cast into a mystery on board the airship. There’s a strange passenger, a threatening vortisaur, a perfectly blustery general (Lord Tamworth), an obvious villain (Rathbone) because he talks with an accent (possibly German?) Even a touch of comic relief with Chief Steward Weeks. The story ticks all the right boxes and we know early on that the mysterious passenger is going to an alien but we don’t know much about him or what his/her/its game will be. Frankly, I was reminded of The Faceless Ones, with their nonspeaking “sick” alien. Of course, things go wrong on the airship and Rathbone does something typically irresponsible and foolhardy resulting in the destruction of the R101. The Doctor has to prove his earlier claim that he learned to ride Vortisaurs bareback at the academy to save himself and Charley. (This would have been impressive to see, but in audio, with no idea about the size or general shape of a vortisaur, it sort of falls. Did the writer forget that this was planning to be audio??)
The Doctor rescues Charley because she wasn’t supposed to be there to begin with but, oh wait, she was. He miscounted! The Doctor screwed up and now has to have another monologue, this time about how Charley was supposed to die but failed to because he made a mistake, oh Charley… while she goes cavorting around on “Ramsay the Flying Vortisaur.” You know… the creature that was depicted as bloodthirsty and dangerous just at the start of the story? Yeah. Seriously, some things do work very well with this story, like the Poirot mystery it starts off like but then some bits just crumble. In the end, it’s all to get the Doctor and Charley together but too much monologue really brings the overall story to its knees.
It’s hard to get past the empty space filled with words that comprise so much of Paul’s first audio. I did enjoy it, don’t misunderstand, but I felt we were a long way from a perfect story. “Now, I’ll have to find a way to wrap up this review because I feel like I’m being too critical, but if I give an example of some open monologue, maybe the audience will understand. If not, it’ll look like I’m just filling space to get a certain word count! What is the word count on my reviews anyway…” Yeah, you get the point. Hopefully they’ll work that out now that Charley is officially traveling with our favorite Time Lord. ML