November 22nd, 2013
Continuity can be a useful tool.
Peri and the Piscon Paradox, by Nev Fountain, is the kind of story that could only be told as Doctor Who, and is probably the best multi-Doctor story ever written. And it only works because of thirty years of Doctor Who continuity.
Peri Brown, the companion from the last two Peter Davison stories until the last two Colin Baker ones [FOOTNOTE: Depending how you count the stories in The Trial of a Time Lord], is a problematic character in multiple ways. The one that concerns most fans, but is of least real interest, is that the manner of her leaving in The Trial of a Time Lord is retconned away even in that story — by the time we get to various books and audio dramas, it’s almost impossible to make sense of how she really left the Doctor.
But more importantly, the character was always portrayed in a frankly indefensible manner. Peri was created, at least in part, as “something for the dads” — her very first appearance in the show was in a bikini, and most of the outfits she wore were designed to show off Nicola Bryant’s large breasts. This wouldn’t, in itself, be much worse than most of the other companions, who were often sexualised to a quite ridiculous degree, but it was coupled with a series of villains who, week after week, kidnapped her and lusted after her in a way that often implied at least attempted rape.
This was all part of Eric Saward’s macho attitude towards script-editing — sexualised violence is “exciting” in exactly the same way that guns are — but it becomes uncomfortable when watching more than a couple of the stories in which Peri appears.
And then there’s the fact that in Peri’s debut story, Planet of Fire, it is at least possible to read the story as implying that Peri was sexually abused by her stepfather. And the way that when the Doctor, after regenerating, physically and emotionally assaults her in The Twin Dilemma (a story that I find painful to watch for those scenes), she forgives him in the way that abuse victims do, all too often.
Peri and the Piscon Paradox takes these flaws and turns them to advantages. It’s part of Big Finish’s Companion Chronicles series, where actors who played a companion narrate a story, joined by a single other actor to play one other part. In this case Nicola Bryant narrates, with Colin Baker adding the voices of the sixth Doctor and a fish-monster.
The first disc tells a story of Peri and the Fifth Doctor fighting the aforementioned fish-monster in LA in 2009, with the assistance of Peri’s ‘forty-several’ year old self, an agent for a secret government agency who Peri quickly grows to despise. It ends with Peri vowing never to become like her older self.
The second disc tells the story of Doctor Perpugilliam Brown, presenter of a ‘celebrity relationship counselling’ TV show, and how she gets dragged into a complicated plot by a man claiming to be someone she once met in Lanzarotte, more than twenty years ago, even though he looks nothing like him, and how that plot involves tricking a past self she can’t remember.
Many of the motifs from Fountain’s other work, especially The Kingmaker, recur as the story goes on. Not only are there multiple Doctors interacting without being fully aware of each other’s actions, and time paradoxes, there are many, many jokes set up in the first half that only pay off in the second. The first three-quarters of this story, in fact, is pretty much laugh-out-loud funny throughout. I know it’s hard to believe, given that Fountain also wrote for Dead Ringers, but it is a good piece of comedy.
And Nicola Bryant is excellent. Despite the fact that she’s hampered by having to do the accent and characterisation she lumbered herself with as a much younger actor, she manages to play the two Peris remarkably well, and it’s an astonishingly subtle, nuanced performance. Colin Baker is, of course, as excellent as ever, and is in it more than you might think.
But it’s only at the end, when the full story is revealed, that what Fountain is doing really falls into place and you realise just how good this actually is. In a couple of lines of dialogue, Fountain clears up all the continuity problems that fans have had with the character of Peri. At the same time, he also manages to make the story about things – about growing up, about betraying our youthful ideals, about our youthful ideals betraying us, and about how we harden with age and with compromise.
It all fits perfectly with what we know of the character of Peri, but Fountain (with the help of Nicola Bryant, who had apparently written up a whole set of background notes for the character when she took the role on) takes all the accidental hints created by bad or inconsistent storytelling, and makes something powerful, affecting, and emotionally true out of them.
It’s a very sad, very political story, in the end. Fountain gives the story a bittersweet ending that fits in with my own preferred ‘all stories are true’ Doctor Who ‘canon’, and he manages to make the same scene seen from two different angles mean two totally different things. It turns what was already one of the best stories Big Finish had done in a long time into one of the best they’ve ever done.
In a story that sees the same character from two different time periods, her life twisted beyond all imagining by the interference in her timeline that meeting the Doctor has caused, Fountain has managed to create something wonderful, that could only have been done in Doctor Who. Much like Dead Romance, this is one of those things that really deserves a larger audience than it can ever get. But it’s one that shows exactly what is possible when you take elements from the fifty-year history of Doctor Who and look at them with a fresh eye.
The final post in this series, along with the book of these essays, will go live at midnight tonight…