September 11th, 2013
Sometimes all you need is a good story.
2003 was possibly the peak year for Big Finish. In the months leading up to the fortieth anniversary, there was a huge amount of excitement within fan circles about their multi-Doctor special, Zagreus, and the three stories that came directly before it – Omega, Davros, and Master — each focussing on a particular individual villain.
Zagreus, however, was a massive flop (it’s an impenetrable continuity-fest that has almost nothing to love about it), and before the end of the year it had been announced that Russel T. Davies would be producing a new series of Doctor Who for the TV. The result was that Big Finish lost their momentum. They continue to this day, and still occasionally produce great work — we’ll be looking at three more of their stories over the next ten essays — but by the end of 2003 they were no longer “the current makers of Doctor Who”, the position that many fans thought they’d taken from the novel range, but were rather “the people making stuff to keep us happy until the TV series comes out”. They had to play safe.
Doctor Who And The Pirates is one of the last stories to be produced by Big Finish before this change happened, and it shows just how daring they could be at their peak.
The story’s written by Jacqueline Rayner, who we’ve seen briefly before as the adapter of Oh No It Isn’t!, but who is a very accomplished writer in her own right, one who’s possibly underrated by fandom because she’s worked mostly on the audios, rather than on the “sexier” novels (though she has written several of those, too — but the audios are where she’s at her best).
Rayner had, in Colin Baker’s first adventure for Big Finish, The Marian Conspiracy, revitalised the historical story, putting together a story based on historical fact with no SF elements other than the Doctor himself, but one that still captivated listeners. The novels had made some attempts at pure historicals, but they’d mostly been in the context of the Hartnell or Troughton Doctors. To do one with the most brash and “modern” of the Doctors was an interesting step, but it worked astonishingly well.
And that was mostly to do with the companion that Rayner introduced in that story, Doctor Evelyn Smythe.
While other companions tend to be replacements for Susan — pretty, youngish women who look up to the Doctor as a grandfather figure — or occasionally for Ian, Evelyn was a return to the mould of Barbara. A history lecturer in late middle age with a penchant for cardigans and cocoa, and with a heart condition, she was never going to be “something for the dads”, but was probably the most fully-rounded character ever to exist in any version of Doctor Who, thanks both to the way she was characterised in that first script by Rayner, and to the wonderful chemistry between Colin Baker and Maggie Stables, the actor who plays her.
Evelyn was the only companion since Romana to be a true peer to the Doctor — the fact that she has her own doctorate is an obvious indicator as to how the relationship is meant to be read. He is her (slight) superior intellectually, but she is his superior morally, and (at least in her first dozen or so appearances, before too many different writers got hold of her and weakened the characterisation) acts as a restraining and calming influence to this most anarchic of Doctors.
Evelyn appears here, and is one of the two unreliable narrators, as she and the Doctor attempt to play Scheherazade to a suicidal student, by telling her the story of one of their recent adventures. And it’s pitched absolutely beautifully — at first, Evelyn is seen making mistakes and embellishing the story so it fits the usual pirate narratives (and we hear the same scenes multiple times, as Sally the student corrects obvious falsehoods in Evelyn’s tale), but later we realise that Evelyn is avoiding parts of the story not through forgetfullness, but because even though they’re the most important events, she can’t bring herself to talk about such painful memories.
Her student plans to kill herself because of a car crash she’d been involved in, for which she blamed herself and which killed her boyfriend, but it becomes apparent that Evelyn is equally traumatised by the death of a young man who was killed by the pirate Red Jasper. She’s telling the story partly to prevent the loss of another young life, but also because Sally’s guilt about being unable to save her boyfriend is rather like her own guilt.
(This becomes a recurring theme in Evelyn’s story as it develops — she is very protective of young, vulnerable people, and her final break with the Doctor comes, indirectly, through this, as does her very final scene with him).
And to make it easier for Evelyn to tell the story, the Doctor does something that’s never been done in Doctor Who before or since, although it was possibly inspired by the Buffy episode Once More With Feeling — the story becomes, for one of its four episodes, a musical.
It had already been a comedy — Bill Oddie is particularly wonderful as the psychopathic pirate Red Jasper — but in episode three, prompted by the fact that Sally takes part in student productions of Gilbert & Sullivan operettas, the Doctor introduces rewritten versions of eight songs from The Mikado, The Pirates Of Penzance and HMS Pinafore.
Of course, writing pastiche Gilbert is one of those exercises that everyone who thinks themselves a lyricist tries, but Rayner still does a wonderful job, with I Am The Very Model Of A Gallifreyan Buccaneer being especially enjoyable, with fourth-wall smashing moments like the Doctor pausing to ask “Hecate? Is that in continuity?” (a reference to the K9 And Company spin-off) or referring to having defeated villains “from Tobias Vaughn to Mavic Chen” (both villains played by the same actor).
It’s a daring piece of storytelling — at the end we’re left none the wiser as to how much, if anything, of what we’ve heard is literally true even within the story world, but we know the emotional effect it has had on our main characters. It manages to combine formal playfulness and emotional impact in a way that very few pieces of drama, no matter what the medium, can manage, thanks both to Rayner’s excellent script and the rapport between Baker and Stables.
Big Finish still often do good work, but they’ve never again equalled the run of stories from Spare Parts in July 2002 through to Master in October 2003, which while it had some flops (Flip Flop may be the single most repellent, disgusting thing ever to be released under the Doctor Who name in any medium) was unparalleled for formal inventiveness (even Flip Flop had an interesting structure), quality of performance, and boundary pushing.
That Doctor Who And The Pirates is the best story Big Finish put out in their best year, a year that also included stories like Omega, Davros, Jubilee and Scherzo, all of which are among the best Doctor Who stories ever, should give some idea of its sheer quality.