August 3rd, 2013
Meanwhile, the people at Big Finish had been busy. They’d got the license to create new Doctor Who audio adventures, initially featuring the fifth, sixth and seventh Doctors, and had started with a range that was more-or-less straightforward pastiche of the TV show, although generally with a standard of writing that was much higher than it had been during the time those Doctors were on the TV.
Colin Baker, in particular, had been very well served by his first few stories. Baker was not served well by his TV appearances in the role, and to this day is the butt of jokes by the ignorant about them. As I write this, the Daily Telegraph has just run a “top ten best Doctors” list, when there have so far been eleven actors who have taken the role in the TV series proper. Of course, the joke is that Colin Baker isn’t there. Ho, ho, ho.
But Baker is, in fact, a very strong actor, and when he was given a run of good scripts in the Big Finish audio, soon found his reputation among those fans who were bothering to listen thoroughly rehabilitated.
Some of this was deliberate. Baker’s first full story, The Marian Conspiracy by Jacqueline Rayner, was a wonderful story unlike anything that had been done in the TV series since the early 60s, being a straight historical story. It also introduced a new companion, Dr Evelyn Smythe, who was bar none the most fully-rounded character ever to be a companion for the Doctor.
But it’s with this story, one that was apparently originally intended for Tom Baker before he turned Big Finish down, that both Baker and Big Finish come into their own.
This is the first time that Big Finish did something totally new and original. Rob Shearman, a respected playwright who was at the time best known for his work with Alan Ayckbourn and Martin Jarvis, came up with a story about cruelty, about imagination, and about the creative process.
The Doctor and Frobisher — a companion from the comics, a shapeshifting alien who spends most of his time in the form of a penguin, and who has only appeared in two audio stories, both by Shearman — arrive in a castle where the King has just died. And as is always the case when the King has died, the new King is the good son of the old King and his evil, scheming wife, and is the victim of a plot to usurp the throne by his evil illegitimate half-brother and the High Priest. This has happened every time the King has died, forever…
The basic structure of the story seems to owe a lot to Terry Pratchett and his playing with fantasy conventions — it resembles Pyramids, especially, right down to the new King denying his divinity (Peppin even has a very similar name to Pteppic), with a touch of Small Gods thrown in — but it also resembles Morrison’s Animal Man, going from an argument about animal rights at the start (one following on from Robert Holmes’ similar argument in The Two Doctors, one of Shearman’s very favourite Doctor Who stories) to an argument at the end about how a writer should treat the fictional characters s/he creates.
Shearman has a lot of themes he keeps coming back to, and the two overriding themes here, of a father inadvertantly hurting his son, and of a writer inadvertantly harming his creations, come back time and again, especially in Unbound: Deadline, his “out of continuity” audio story for Big Finish.
But this, his first Doctor Who, is arguably his best. People are cruel to each other because they’re acting roles which they have been placed in and don’t think to break them. Frobisher toys with the gumblejack not because he’s cruel, but because he’s in the form of a penguin. The high priest conspires with the illegitimate evil brother to overthrow Peppin, not because he wants to, but out of a sense of duty. The guards are killed during the ritual assassination attempt because that’s what happens to guards.
People are trapped in their roles, acting out the same pointless mistakes over, and over, and over again.
And so when the big twist comes, and we hear “Are you my daddy?” repeated over and over (yes, Steven Moffat has heard this story, why do you ask?) then we realise that the historian — the writer — who has trapped himself in his own creation has done so because he is living, over and over, the very worst moment of his life. (There’s a similarity here to Permutation City by Greg Egan, though I suspect it’s coincidental).
Much like Dead Romance, this is a strange combination of the highly metafictional and a statement about depression — the whole story turns out to be the thoughts of a man who can’t stop obsessing over the worst thing he has ever done, and who has created an entire civilisation in his own mind just to punish himself for it. One wonders why all the best Doctor Who material from the late 90s and early 2000s seems to combine these two elements, but whatever the reason it led to strikingly good work.
This is not to say that The Holy Terror is depressing — for the most part, it isn’t. Shearman’s style is to write very broad, black, farce that only right at the end has a very serious, horrifying point. For most of the story, The Holy Terror is hilarious, if in a very dark manner — the jokes are mostly about torture, religious persecution, and murder.
While the early Big Finish stories had been good — though not great — pastiches of 1980s Doctor Who, The Holy Terror showed that Big Finish were as capable as anyone of making work that was funny, clever, and moving. As the Eighth Doctor Adventures were fast disintegrating into unreadability (with a few honourable exceptions) as a bunch of terrible editorial decisions alienated all but the most dedicated readers, the Big Finish stories became, from here until 2005, the most vital continuation of the Doctor Who story.