The so-called ‘Wilderness’ era of Doctor Who, between its 1989 cancellation and 2005 reboot, has repeatedly proven itself an incubator for upcoming writers who would go on to do great things in television and fiction. One such example is Doctor Who superfan and regular modern series writer Mark Gatiss with his 1992 entry into the Virgin New Adventures series: Nightshade. Now the chaps at Big Finish have adapted Gatiss’ novel into an eponymous audio adventure starring Sylvester McCoy and Sophie Aldred.
For full disclosure, we should mention that we haven’t read Gatiss’ novel so can’t comment on how well Kyle C Szikora – who adapted it for audio – manages to realise the original story. Szikora goes into some detail about the changes in the bonus interview and the reasoning behind it but suffice to say I’ll be reviewing the audio entirely upon its own merits.
The title character is introduced immediately (even before the opening theme song, which is a rarity) via tiny clips of an old television show about the mysterious Professor Nightshade, more often known as ‘The Professor’, who travels around solving weird goings-on and…oh, you see where I’m going with this. Yes, Nightshade is a transparent metafictional reference to old-school Who (with a bit of Quatermass) but, happily, the in-jokes are handled so well that you never get the sense it’s winking at the audience. If you’re familiar with Big Finish’s backlog it’s hard to avoid being reminded of several ‘Unbound’ plays and the oft-mentioned ‘Professor X’ by this aspect of the story. But it complements the narrative rather than distracting from it and stays well away from self-parody. If anything, the way it informs the character of Trevithick – the aging actor best known for playing Nightshade – becomes more timely alongside Sylvester McCoy as the Doctor, almost thirty years after he inherited the role.
Accompanying McCoy and Sophie Aldred, returning as Ace, is a small cast of supporting characters who all serve a very clear and practical function in the story. In a fairly small setting, both Gatiss and Szikora wisely kept the plot contained and avoided introducing more background characters to try and ramp up the stakes. McCoy and Aldred are on form as always, switching from intimate character moments to loud, shouty action pieces on a dime. Their chemistry has always been what sold the pairing, both onscreen and off, so to have them back together bringing to life a story that deals heavily with the relationship of their characters was a real treat. That said, McCoy gets one well-deserved spotlight moment towards the end.
The sound design does a wonderful job reinforcing the sense of isolation that permeates the story. The crackling rhythm of the rain that persists throughout the play sits alongside the score of quieter moments without drowning it out, whilst also blending perfectly with the noise that the monsters make when they do eventually reveal themselves. Even though they’re physically absent during the bulk of the story, their presence is felt even on a first listen thanks to this subtly mixed soundscape.
If you’re familiar with the novel, there are some major changes that are an unavoidable consequence of having these books adapted on an ad-hoc basis rather than in order of release with ongoing continuity as in the Virgin New Adventures. But if you can see past that, you’ll find a terrific, shrewdly written and well-performed adventure that will have you hanging on from the very first second until the very last. And, once you’ve heard it, you’ll understand how literally we mean that.
Blogtor Rating – 9/10
Professor Nightshade – tea time terror for all the family, and the most loved show in Britain. But Professor Nightshade’s days are long over, and Edmund Trevithick is now just an unemployed actor in a retirement home, fondly remembering his past.
It’s the same through the entire village of Crook Marsham – people are falling prey to their memories. At first harmlessly, and then, the bodies begin to turn up.
The Doctor and Ace arrive on the scene – but, with the Doctor planning his retirement, it may be time for Professor Nightshade to solve one last case.
Nightshade is based on the novel by Mark Gatiss from the Virgin New Adventures series of Doctor Who books
Written By: Mark Gatiss, adapted by Kyle C Szikora
Directed By: Scott Handcock
Sylvester McCoy (The Doctor), Sophie Aldred (Ace), John Castle (Edmund Trevithick), Samuel Barnett (Robin), Katherine Jakeways (Jill), Edward Harrison (Dr. Hawthorne), Jonny Magnanti (Lawrence), Tom Price (Sgt Barclay) and Carole Ann Ford (Susan)