Big Finish Folly, Part 4

Onwards and upwards – to the first tale in my “second season” of 5th Doctor audio plays.

Creatures of Beauty, by Nicholas Briggs

Album cover

The TARDIS has malfunctioned and arrived on the planet Veln, which is fatally tainted by dyestrial toxins. The Veln suspect Nyssa of being an agent for the alien Koteem who engineered their destruction four generations ago.

Nothing is as it appears in this story. Even the Doctor is not a totally innocent bystander…

Told in a mazy, disjointed fashion that takes a few minutes to get used to, Creatures of Beauty is actually a very good tale. The structure is deliberately designed to conceal a couple of Very Important Plot points, and the history of the Veln is dripfed to the listener until the true nature of the disaster becomes appallingly clear. Nyssa is mistreated badly by the Veln, yet they are not really the “bad guys” of the piece. In fact there are no bad guys as such, just shades of grey, which highlights the characters and their individual motivations instead. By doing that, Briggs turns the Doctor’s blithe adventurism into a failing and a disability – a brave move that ultimately makes for a more satisfying story, if a pretty downbeat one.

Perhaps it is a bit much to have two survival-through-genetic-modification stories side by side, but release-wise these tales were issued 10 months apart. It is clear however that Big Finish’s 5th Doctor is not the “omnipotent Time Lord” most folk assume the Doctor to be – conflicted, inflicted with a fatal curiosity, and clearly still affected by Adric’s death, you get the sense that his ignorance of the true cause of the dyestrial poisoning is a blessing as much as a curse. Another brilliant play – and hardly the last, either…

Bonus review: Bernice Summerfield – Walking To Babylon, by Kate Orman

Album coverPreviously, Big Finish seemed uncertain how to play Bernice – serious, or comedy? The results were mixed: Oh No It Isn’t! worked pretty well, while Beyond The Sun just sounded ham-fisted at times. Matters weren’t helped by a theme tune that sounded like a bad dry-run for a hokey BBC detective series. Fortunately, Walking To Babylon reversed that downwards spiral. Well, to some extent, anyway…

The play is most notable for two things: being the first appearance outside the Virgin novels for The People, Ben Aaronovich’s take on The Culture, and also for Elisabeth Sladen’s role as a Babylonian priestess. Sladen whoops it up, thoroughly enjoying herself, while the leads Lisa Bowerman and Stephen Fewell finally begin to settle properly into their own roles. The disposal of the linking “journal entries” narration helps enormously, as Beyond the Sun had suffered from jumpy story cuts and overuse of Benny’s journal – without this, the characters actually drive the story. Fewell’s character, Jason Kane, still sulks like a teenager more than you’d expect – hardly a fitting trait for Benny’s ex-husband.

My big quibble is with The People themselves – in The Also People they were self-possessed in the way that only technologically superior beings can be (because we’ve all been there, of course…), but Beyond the Sun presents them as almost comically daft. The drone that accompanies them is little more than a smiley robot, rather than a genuinely sentient being. As The Also People was one of my favourite 7th Doctor books, I couldn’t really take The People seriously in this play.

Interestingly, the play finishes on a cliff-hanger: not everything is neatly tied up. At this point Big Finish clearly felt more comfortable and more confident with the prospect of the series. Okay, let’s see where this goes next…


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Epic Fantasist & SFSF Socialist.

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