The Ninth Doctor is back! And he’s brought his biggest grin and biggest book of dad jokes with him!

With Buried Threats, the Ninth Doctor Adventures reaches its eleventh boxset. By now the writing team have fully adjusted to Christopher Eccleston’s slightly alternative take on his old character. For a long time the range suffered a disconnect from scripts which reflected this Doctor as he was on TV, with the more carefree, whimsical Time Lord Eccleston clearly wanted to portray. This third series of boxsets have finally grappled with that problem head on, but Buried Threats is the most successful. For the most part, it presents him as a happy go-lucky, dad joke firing, fun-seeker. In balance, when the three stories it contains do require some introspection or touch on darker themes, Eccleston’s at least a little more willing to meet the script half way.

 

Doctor Who: A Theatre of Cruelty. Cover by Caroline Tankersley (c) Big Finish Ninth Doctor Adventures
Doctor Who: A Theatre of Cruelty. Cover by Caroline Tankersley (c) Big Finish

A Theatre of Cruelty

Though the accompanying interviews clarify it’s just a coincidence, it’s a happy one that yet another Ninth Doctor Adventure allows Eccleston to meet one of his personal historical heroes. In this case it’s the early 20th century French theatre practitioner Antonin Artaud. Artaud pioneered immersive theatre: stagecraft which dispensed with the stage altogether to engage audiences directly with the work. But his ideas extended far beyond the novelty of The Great Gatsby playing out between the tables of cosplaying audiences. His ‘Theatre of Cruelty’ was designed to assault the senses and the mind. His goal was to inspire the same terror and depth of emotion as felt by the characters.

Replicating that experience would be a tall order for any Big Finish, perhaps outside the Torchwood monthly range. Especially when the Doctor blunders in, spitting puns in every direction and even jokingly implying a previous encounter with the Tenth Doctor. (And if you’re trying to tease people into asking for it: yes, please, make it happen for real Big Finish). But A Theatre of Cruelty does give us insight into the mind of one of theatre’s unsung pioneers. Literally, in fact, as the Doctor steps into Artaud’s dreamscape to investigate why his recurring nightmare about the Cenci family from his play is beginning to take physical form.

The ultimate answer is a mix of standard Doctor Who cliches, but that hardly matters. What does matter is that Artaud himself is brought to greater attention. Big Finish regular Alexander Vlahos provides a sensitive portrayal of a man struggling with mental illness and grappling with the revolutionary ideas he simply must express.

 

Doctor Who: The Running Men. Cover by Caroline Tankersley (c) Big Finish Ninth Doctor Adventures
Doctor Who: The Running Men. Cover by Caroline Tankersley (c) Big Finish

The Running Men

Second story The Running Men brings the Doctor to 21st century Yorkshire. More specifically Halifax, where the site of hundreds of vicious 17th century executions may have been found. But the spectral ‘running men,’ those who tried to escape the guillotine like axe blade, are now running again. And they aim to add to their number…

The story reunites Eccleston with his old A Word co-star Pooky Quesnel. Although there’s not much love in the air this time as Quesnel’s ruthless property developer Annalise Avenley has dug up more than she bargained for and become attuned to something even nastier. Meanwhile, though far removed from his spellbinding turn in Kinda, Simon Rouse’s keen amateur historian is a grumpy joy. He remains obsessed with holding up the development even as the end of the world unfolds.

But the Doctor’s main pseudo companion for the adventure is Sergeant Ambika Desai of the West Yorkshire Police. It’s a combination which calls to mind future fam member Yaz, complete with the Doctor’s childish disappointment she won’t put on the ‘blues and twos’ for him. Ambika’s role as essentially the grown up in this partnership works well with this Tigger-like version of the Doctor. The result is one of the most charismatic pairings for the Ninth Doctor so far.

Ultimately, The Running Men is slightly undone by an ending that descends into a lot of screaming and howling sound effects while the Doctor does… something or other that amounts to an off switch for the story. But it’s hard to hold that against a tale that’s populated with such colourful characters so well performed.

 

Doctor Who: Ancient History. Cover by Caroline Tankersley (c) Big Finish Ninth Doctor Adventures
Doctor Who: Ancient History. Cover by Caroline Tankersley (c) Big Finish

Ancient History

Another story that leans heavily on the appeal of its characters is finale Ancient History. As we begin the Doctor is already doing his best to undermine an archeological dig on an alien planet. Complicating matters is the presence of an old friend, Bernice Summerfield. The Doctor’s not keen for her to even know he’s there; not yet ready to face someone who knew him so well before the Time War. Before long she realizes who he really is, and is furious at the deception. But once she’s past that she’s quick to pick up that something has changed. She reads him like only our best friends can, quickly divining that it’s himself he no longer trusts, not her.

Lisa Bowerman judges her performance as Benny as perfectly as ever, and Eccleston resonate in response. She communicates her side of their connection so well that he allows himself to match it with a rare look into the darkness and regret associated with this incarnation. The result isn’t quite up there with School Reunion. But of all the mix-and-match returns by former companions down the years, Benny and the Doctor’s attempts to repair their relationship is one of the most compelling and well thought out.

 

Villains like Ancient History’s may be two a penny but the real centrepiece here is the Doctor and Benny’s relationship

Perhaps to ensure listeners have the headspace to concentrate on that relationship, the plot itself requires little effort to follow. In fact, even the script gently pokes fun at its lack of originality as Benny notes that long lost final strongholds of extinct warrior races are two a penny. And, in Doctor Who, those races not being quite so extinct after all almost goes without saying. That cyborg space-vikings the Korravin sound distinctly like the Martian descriptions in the original script for The Ice Warriors (rather than the upright crocodiles that wound up on screen) feels like a deliberate underlining of the homage too.

But Ancient History brings a distinctly Ninth Doctor era vibe to these cliches. Time-bending paradoxes play a bigger role than usual in this particular resurrection. Meanwhile, the Doctor’s “…Ah,” as he realizes his big plan has only made everything worse echoes The Unquiet Dead in a prime Eccleston moment.

 

The Ninth Doctor may not have required reinvention, but this Eccleston v2.0 is still loads of fun

Many will still miss the Ninth Doctor’s tortured soul being worn firmly on his leather sleeve. Just as some would like a bit more shouty grumpiness from Colin Baker, rather than an avuncular granddad. But Christoper Eccleston’s reborn Doctor (‘Oul Niney, anyone?’) seems to have now settled into being a satisfying version in his own right, and a fun eccentric uncle to have around. Even if you do laughingly groan at his jokes.

 

Doctor Who: Buried Threats. Cover by Caroline Tankersley (c) Big Finish Ninth Doctor Adventures
Doctor Who: Buried Threats. Cover by Caroline Tankersley (c) Big Finish

Doctor Who: Buried Threats

Not all perils faced by the Doctor are as obvious as an alien invasion. Some threats have been buried for millennia, some for mere centuries, and some hide inside a troubled mind.   

But whenever he finds injustice, danger, or just an irresistible mystery, the Doctor won’t stop digging until the truth is uncovered.   

Doctor Who – The Ninth Doctor Adventures: Buried Threats is available to own for just £29.99 (collector’s edition CD box set + download) or £22.99 (download only), exclusively here.

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