Feel the music in your soul, says the CD case for Sylvester McCoy’s next adventure. Issue 36 of Big Finish’s main range of Doctor Who sees … or rather, hears… the 7th Doctor and Ace on the island of Ibiza in 1997. Like the novel line of The New Adventures before them, Big Finish is able to do things with the series that could never have been done on television. With its apparent demise on television, the series was now being made by the adults who loved the show as kids. Like themselves, they felt the show was maturing and had “outgrown” television and that meant they could do more things with it in audio. In some ways, that’s great; in others, not so much. The idea of being more mature and growing up is a slippery slope when the writers don’t really understand what that means.
Growing up is an interesting thing. When you’re young, you think being cool and mature is the way to be, but when you get older, you realize peoples values have degraded and you long for the days when people did put value into things. I’m not knocking Big Finish. I applaud them for experimenting and I applaud the fans for being open to it. While I am glad for the experimentation, that does lead to some inevitable criticism. But I have to say, for an episode that focuses on sex, drugs, and partying, Big Finish at least had the right idea: have Ace go through her own coming of age story. We’ve only had bits and pieces of this in the television show, but after the death of Feldwebel Kurtz in Colditz, Ace is dealing with a lot and is ready to give up her “cool”, youthful moniker and go by the more mature McShane (because Dorothy wouldn’t be edgy enough… and in fairness, she’s right). But here’s where a coming of age story may not work. While the fans who were making these stories were the kids of yesterday who loved Doctor Who on television, I am fairly certain at this point, none of them had children who were knocking at the TARDIS door asking to be let in. I say this without investigating but I say it because I have children who got into Doctor Who and I don’t know how I’d feel about them listening to this story. (Well, now they are old enough, but when they were younger…)
I don’t need the F-word to show how mature I am. I don’t need to take drugs to be cool. I don’t need to say I’m going to kick someone’s ass, or call someone a bitch, nor do I have to say I’m going somewhere to “get laid” or “do a DJ.” That doesn’t stop writer Joseph Lidster from adding those things to his “mature” script for the Doctor’s visit to Ibiza. What does it add? A sense of edginess, maybe, but it limits the audience. Yes, I like hardcore science fiction, but I’m not oblivious to the fact that Doctor Who is not, and is never likely to be, that. Doctor Who is hopeful Sci-fi-Fantasy; it’s a fairy tale. Yes, if you’re going for edgy, at least McCoy and Aldred do it well, and I really liked the overall nature of this story but I didn’t need someone writing a script to effectively shout out, “hey, I’m an adult, I can talk about sex, and curse, and take drugs!” Drugs and casual sex does not prove maturity and the idea of that being the Doctor’s remedy for his companion does make me question the Doctor’s wisdom.
Right, so on that note, the gist of the story is that the Doctor wants to take Ace… I mean McShane… to an island to party a bit and get the death of Feldwebel Kurtz off her mind. They encounter a club run by “angels” who intend to hypnotize the populace into fighting a war on a far away world. In the grand scheme of Doctor Who stories, this is a bump in the road. What it does do well is explores the nature of brothers and sisters. That was well played, reminding Jude and Gabriel why they were together and what they meant to each other as brothers, and later driving that same point home for McShane with her newfound brother Liam. If you’re going to go edgy, investigate family dynamics!
That’s not to say the story gets it all wrong! Viewed on its own merits, it’s a good story! The brains at Big Finish do some really great things. The theme music is different in every epsiode and, while dance music isn’t my thing, I found myself really enjoying it while driving, actually wishing for more. Possibly my favorite cliffhanger has a radio host saying “well, that’s all we have time for…” as the dance version begins and I found myself bopping with glee as I drove into my office. Exploring the aforementioned dynamic between brothers and sisters was heartfelt as Jude could not imagine his life without his brother, any more than could I without my sister. Then there’s the nature of addiction, not just explored through drugs (with Anne Bird playing to perfection as Caitriona Henderson), but also the codependent addiction shown between Liam and Caitriona. Showing her manic/depressive (bipolar) personality as something Liam has a need to “fix” or help, just shows he is unwilling to face his own demons. This is some advanced storytelling; it’s meaningful. It’s a shame it was hampered by some unnecessary “maturity!” Truama is also addressed when the Doctor explains to McShane why Kurtz’s death was so damaging: it happened in the safe haven of the TARDIS. The whole adventure is a veritable cornucopia of good ideas! (And good music!)
There’s also some fun to be had with McShane mentioning “killer seaweed” to which the Doctor becomes surprised, misunderstanding her colloquialism for the real deal which he encountered in Fury from the Deep. I also couldn’t help laugh at a murder to which the killer quickly say “God rest your soul”, as if saying that exonerated him of the evil deed! Most of the cliffhangers are mediocre featuring the standard “ACE!” as the Doctor yells into the theme tune, but the story made up for that. (The cliffhangers are really there to break up the listening, so I can accept if the cliffhangers are mediocre if the overall story is strong!)
I’ll give it this: this story was miles ahead of its time and far better than I remembered. Listening with the intent of talking about them does give one greater clarity when listening. I’ll be interested to hear how Ace develops in the future. Will McShane be back for more, or will she revert and throw away the development we’ve seen here. As the Doctor and Ace know all too well, only time will tell. But the times, they are a’changin. ML
When we look at the most rare opportunities for Doctor Who to tackle these kinds of issues, in the main areas of the Whoniverse of course outside Torchwood and Class, perhaps it may seem fitting enough for the particularly dimensional team of the 7th Doctor and Ace in this case. It’s easier for us in that sense to reflect more vividly on Ace’s potentially sexualized dialogue scene in The Curse Of Fenric. Even a franchise that’s intended to have messages and themes of hope like Doctor Who and Star Trek must occasionally remind us that there are two sides to every coin for a reason. It’s therefore deserving of our faith that it can all be resolved in an appropriately encouraging way. I still come to terms, as do we all, with the realism that all your points, ML, in your third paragraph are consequently reshaping more than ever in this century what we authentically choose to be as individuals. For the message that such courageous choices can positively count for something, I’ll always be grateful to the Whoniverse for that. Thanks for your review.
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