Christopher Eccleston is back with three new Doctor Who stories set on the thin line between the living and the dead
The Ninth Doctor is back once more, for a second series of adventures starring the legendary Christopher Eccleston. And this time his destination is… Earth? When the linking theme for this box set of three stories – ‘Back to Earth’ – was announced it was greeted with faint puzzlement. After all, the Ninth Doctor has famously spent more time on Earth than almost any other incarnation. Now that the set has arrived, it seems an even stranger choice when another linking theme even more strongly connects these episodes – they’re all ghost stories.
As you’d expect, a suitably Doctor Who science fiction twist is at work in all three. But from lost souls wandering the deepest depths of the London Underground, to eyeless ladies haunting the New Year’s Eves of an isolated manor house, via the spectre of a dead prince claiming bloody revenge on a murderous king, Back to Earth frequently draws on the roots of classic horror stories. All they repeatedly place the Doctor standing guard alone at the border between the living and the dead.
Station to Station provides a creepy fairy tale of lost souls wandering the London Underground
Well, not quite alone. All the Ninth Doctor Adventures may be set before he exploded into Rose Tyler’s life. But he meets one or two friends along the way who stand with him in what feel almost like companion audition pieces. The strongest sense of this is with Indigo Griffith’s Saffron in opening episode Station to Station. Caught between two worlds in her heart, between her love for her new fiancée, and her lingering desire for her homophobic parents’ approval, she’s soon caught between two worlds physically. She finds herself in the dark and foreboding Underground station of Underbridge. It’s home to a strange collection of people from across the centuries, apparently doomed to wander its platforms and tunnels reliving their earthly anxieties over and over again, not even aware of each other. And it’s also home to the Grimminy-Grue…
The Doctor and Saff make quite the team as they navigate the mystery and try to evade the fairy tale beast at the heart of it. Like all the best companions Saff isn’t just someone to ask all the useful questions. Rather she’s the one who sometimes makes the leap of insight to realize connections the Doctor fails to spot. And like all the best Doctors, the Christopher Eccleston incarnation is charmed and impressed at being proven wrong. Creepy railway stations (“full of lost luggage and lost souls,” as the Seventh Doctor once said) have long been part of the language of the horror story. And the eerie and forsaken Underbridge is no exception.
The first episode builds to a thrilling battle of wits and minds between the Time Lord and an ancient enemy
But most impressive of all is how writer Robert Valentine manages the climax. It skillfully folds the Brothers Grimm style clash of wills between the Grimminy-Grue (a gloriously scenery chewing Ian Bartholomew) and the Doctor into Doctor Who’s world. Though it’s just a slight shame this story just missing the upcoming expansion of the Big Finish licence. One moment in particular is crying out for a “Timeless Child” reference. Meanwhile, Station to Station’s combination of the downbeat with flashes of optimism keeps you guessing to the end whether this will be one of the cases where the Doctor can save everyone, or nobody at all…
The False Dimitry delves into the identity of one of Russian history’s most mysterious figures
Middle story The False Dimitry opens with the dead taking revenge on the living, with the apparent ghost of Russian Tsarevish Dimitry Ivanovich sending his rumoured murderer, Tsar Boris Godunov to a grave of his own. But the action soon shifts to the very real man laying siege to Moscow with his army. A man who claims Dimitry never died at all. That, in fact, he is Dmitry come to claim his rightful throne. Though the Doctor, himself newly arrived in the Russian capital, quickly begins to suspect there’s more going on than a mere imposter.
The strange chapter surrounding the False Dmitry is one perfect for Doctor Who to explore. After all, this is someone who reigned as absolute ruler of Russia for almost a year, yet the history books can only guess at who he might really have been. So why mightn’t the answer have been rather more alien in nature than any historian would dare guess? But the script here tries too hard to have its cake and eat it, choosing one of the common suspects in the mystery as correct, but then adding a further layer of him not really being himself either, but a body reanimated by alien puppet-masters.
An overpacked plot also struggles with a clash of tones that seem uncertain about what type of story it wants to be
This over-complication extends too to condensing his eleven months of the throne to just a couple of days. But the historical inaccuracy matters less than the attempt to hit all the key plot points of that year. It leads to a frantic pace and an overstuffed story, with invasions atop weddings atop coronations atop revolutions. It’s akin to doing a WWII story where the evacuation of Dunkirk happens on a Friday, and the Battle of Britain is over by the Monday.
There’s also a sense of indecision about what sort of story The False Dmitry wants to be. There’s some intense body horror, and harrowing personal trauma sitting side by side with incredibly broad comedy. Katy Brittain brilliantly channels Una O’Conner in The Bride of Frankenstein (or, if you prefer, Cloris Leachman in Young Frankenstein.) But having Brittain’s Oksana not just as comic relief but as vital cog in the plot itself makes for some very oddly unbalanced scenes.
Auld Lang Syne provides a mix of thrills and emotion worthy of the best of Eccleston on television as eyeless ladies haunt an old house’s New Year’s Eves
However, final episode Auld Lang Syne provides a strong finish for Back to Earth. We’re once again in classic ghost story territory as the Litherland family begin an annual tradition of spending every New Year’s Eve in the mysterious Foulds House. They’re there at the invitation of the house’s mysterious caretaker. All he asks in return is that Mandy take away a mysterious object from the house every New Year’s Day. And, in balance, to return it to him each 31st of December. Such bargains are the stuff of spine-chilling campfire stories and Auld Lang Syne doesn’t disappoint. Though, given that the caretaker is the Doctor, at least it’s clear that it’s not some demonic trap. Probably.
With forerunners like The Haunting of Hill House firmly embedded in its DNA, the story strikes a keen balance. On the one side there’s the threat of the house and the interpersonal dramas of those within its walls. For every heart thudding scene of a woman in the corner of the library, slowly turning to reveal an eyeless face, there’s a scene of Mandy (Leah Brotherhead exuding pure companion material) and Great Aunt Bette (a predictably superb Wendy Craig) bickering about blankets and finding a job during the drive to the house. But as in all the best such stories, these strands actively complement and feed each other.
The Litherlands add credibly to the collection of loveable, female led families of the Davies era
In the end, the Doctor’s long put off explanation of why these events has been taking place is suitably impressive and surprising. But it’s less important than the emotional impact on the family. These New Year’s Eves have consequences for them, as do the Doctor’s choices. Auld Lang Syne is possibly the closest these Ninth Doctor Adventures have come yet to the feel of a Russell T Davies script, with its one hour runtime enough to leave you feeling your know the Litherlands as well as the Tylers or the Nobles.
Now with more episodes than on television, Christopher Eccleston continues to electrify scripts with the Ninth Doctor’s distinctive voice
One of the most remarkable things about Doctor Who: Back to Earth is how Christopher Eccleston sounds like he’s hardly been away. He may claim in accompanying interviews that he now works harder to reach the same energy levels as in 2005. But you’d be forgiven for thinking this actually had been recorded back then. But he’s aided by Big Finish’s equal skill at finding the Ninth Doctor’s distinctive voice on the page. Compassionate, but steeled; flighty, but deeply grounded; this is every inch the Doctor you remember down to his Timberland boots. And with Back to Earth adding Christopher Eccleston to the ranks of the Doctors who’ve now recorded more episodes with Big Finish than they did for TV, long may he continue.
Doctor Who: Back to Earth
Time and again, the Doctor finds himself returning to his favourite planet. Dropping in on history or the present-day, whether it’s kings, commuters or ordinary people, he’s never met anyone who wasn’t important…
Doctor Who — The Ninth Doctor Adventures: Back to Earth is now available to own for just £24.99 (collector’s edition CD box set + download) or £19.99 (download only), exclusively from the Big Finish website.