My first encounter with a Big Finish audio came when I encountered Zagreus in a charity shop. He didn’t buy anything and, in fact, made rather a nuisance of himself, but still I felt obliged to buy a copy of his eponymous CD, being sufficiently intrigued/lured in by anything that featured a full half-compliment of Doctors.
Unfortunately, due to being plunged straight into the midst of the action that seemingly followed straight from the previous story, I was left perpetually bewildered by the whole thing and found it to be a bit of a mess, frankly. It wasn’t until a few months ago that I was tempted by a copy of the Davison/Baker/McCoy fest Sirens Of Time that was a rather more pleasant experience. Still somewhat weighed down by the amount of Doctors contained within, I found it a flawed but enjoyable listen.
Winter For The Adept followed this which, with its 25 minute per episode ‘Classic Who‘ approach I found the perfect accompaniment to my journey to work each morning. It was also a joy to listen to, being the first time I’d encountered an instalment of ‘Classic’ Who that retained the freshness that always came from a brand new episode. After this, I thoroughly enjoyed the Eighth Doctor’s Twilight Kingdom, but wasn’t quite as convinced by his Baker-lite Shada, largely due to the fact that it all felt rather more like Paul McGann trying to be the Fourth Doctor than the Eighth Doctor, but there’s only so much one can do when a recalcitrant Elder Spokesman refuses to play ball, I guess.
And so to the first Big Finish audio that I get to hear within a couple of months of its release, The Judgement Of Isskar, which promotes itself as being the first story of the ‘Key 2 Time’ series.
We open with a companionless Fifth Doctor wondering through a forest shouting for a ‘lost’ Peri. Of course, we already know that Nicola Bryant isn’t accompanying the Doctor on this trip, but this sort of set up does grate a little, especially as it seems to make it even more obvious that the said companion isn’t actually around, and is reminiscent of the Doctor’s constant yelling for Tegan and Turlough on his segment of Sirens Of Time. Do forgive me for drawing similarities ‘twixt the two. It might be one hundred and sixteen releases earlier for the dedicated Big Finish aficionado, but it was only two months ago for me!
Without a recognisable ‘Classic’ series companion for this episode, the role of the Doctor’s companion falls to a rather odd creation indeed who, incidentally, considers the Doctor to be her companion! Ciara Janson plays ‘Amy’, a being created moments before his arrival by a species named The Grace, who seemingly have the intention of persuading the Doctor – by any means necessary – to help her gather three of the Key to Time segments. The level of persuasion required for him to undertake this task is, however, a rather weak opening to the episode, for the threat is so understated as to appear almost negligible, and the Doctor seems almost keen to tag along with Amy. A second criticism came to mind when it failed to be explained just why The Grace only desired three of the segments of the Key to Time, and why the Key was even required again, but this was eventually explained.
Both of these early misgivings soon fell away for three different reasons, however.
Firstly, Peter Davison plays the Doctor unbelievably well. That may sound like an odd thing to say, but given Billie Piper’s recent tour de farce as a very odd Rose Tyler struggling to accommodate what seemed like very uncomfortable dentures in Turn Left, it shouldn’t automatically be assumed that these people can go back to playing their Whoniverse selves so easily. But Davison does. He’s a little more hoarse than I remember, but just the right balance of tetchy yet solidly decent that it reminded me of why he was a favourite Doctor of mine in the way that others never were.
Ciara Janson too is a revelation as she takes to the naïve yet fascinating and surprisingly multi-layered character of Amy with great aplomb, delivering some juicy and mildly comedic lines extremely well indeed. Her rapport with Davison is also something to be noted.
The third reason as to why my misgivings fell away are due to the main ‘set’. Without giving too much away (despite the fact there’s a bloody great Ice Warrior on the cover of the CD) it’s set on Mars, but a somewhat different Mars to what one might expect. However, one doesn’t have to make too many assumptions about the place as it’s all brought fantastically well to life, with Martian colour, sounds, inhabitants and general atmosphere all bringing themselves very much through my speakers and into my head. My only complaint would be the somewhat harder to visualise section towards the end when the protagonists find themselves climbing the outside of a Martian pyramid. As ever with these things, the attempt is made to add sound effects and heavy breathing to indicate the exertion involved in such a feat, but it never really makes the leap from recording studio to visual imagery.
Eventually, once the Doctor and his taggers on realise the perils of where the Segment is hiding, and quite why it and its companion pieces need collecting, the episode ends on a good cliffhanger, as all good Doctor Who really should do.
However, even if the cliffhanger hadn’t sucked me back for episode two, then the episode itself certainly would have.
The review of episode two will be here on Monday….!