The Doctor has an impossible reunion in three stories that showcase Paul McGann at his charismatic, freewheeling best
Time is a funny thing, and nowhere is that more true than in the world of Big Finish. Their unique mandate to cover all of Doctor Who from An Unearthly Child to The Power of the Doctor means they can dip into times long past at will. They bounce around from era to era, even within a given Doctor’s timeline. A story set in their early days follow one in the twilight of their incarnation. Next might take place somewhere in between before picking up where those stories of their early days left off. It’s been the Big Finish’s team great advantage over the Doctor’s television adventures. After all, even for a time travel show, it’s still bound by actors’ contracts. It’s a linear progression from regeneration to regeneration; from a companion joining the TARDIS to their inevitable departure.
But it can make things messy in unexpected ways, too. In this case, just as the Eighth Doctor Adventures team were ready to turn their attention back to Paul McGann’s travels with Bliss during the Time War, actor Rakhee Thakrar became unavailable to continue them due to other work commitments. So perhaps this box set’s greatest triumph is turning that into a benefit as only Doctor Who can.
The central concept of the set transforms the challenge of Thakrar’s unavailability into an opportunity to do something extraordinary
Cass begins with Tim Foley’s Meanwhile, Elsewhere; the Doctor and recently resurrected great-grandson Alex travelling sans Bliss. There’s absolutely no explanation for it either. Just the Doctor’s occasional nagging feeling that he’s forgetting something or someone important. But we get a major hint that there’s some serious Timey Warey business afoot when the pair run into Cass. Cass who the Doctor’s not supposed to meet until his very last day wearing Paul McGann’s face. Cass who hates Time Lords as much as she hates the Daleks and dies only minutes after meeting him.
That Cass. Who’s now not only very much alive, but finding the TARDIS aboard her ship many years too early is quite excited to meet time travellers. In fact, she immediately impresses both the Doctor and Alex with her eagerness and bravery. Most crucially of all, there’s her willingness to take even the most extraordinary things in her stride (more or less).
And she’ll need to, as she and the crew are overtaken by bizarre events. The ship is becoming an ever more complex jigsaw of random bits of time and space from across the universe. But what’s the cause? And how can the newly formed trio save the day? From there she joins the TARDIS to travel to a distant world where a long lost sailing ship has been rediscovered in Lou Morgan’s Vespertine. And finally Previously, Next Time takes them to a planet whose medieval level society is the Daleks’ next target. All three provide wonderful dialogue and action, often managing to conceal or reimagine familiar Doctor Who tropes in unexpected and satisfying ways.
All three stories here are well crafted slices of Doctor Who, but the heart of the set is just how much fun McGanns Senior and Junior are having with new playmate Cass
But to a certain extent, as good as they are the plots are secondary. The set’s main business is introducing Cass as a character and establishing a dynamic between herself, the Doctor, and Alex. In essence, she’s a whole new character. All three scripts here seize on how little we know about her from Night of the Doctor to reinvent her as a witty, wry, woman. Someone who’s both eager to learn but unafraid to raise an eyebrow at the other pair’s more slapdash explanations.
Sonny McGann as Alex sounds more like his father than ever, and there’s a lovely ease to the Doctor and Alex’s relationship. There’s an element of the favourite teacher/student banter of the Twelfth Doctor and Bill here. But there’s also a touch of the near-equality with Romana as Alex mostly understands what the Doctor’s talking about. Between them, the trio create an attractive, warm, dynamic that, like all the best TARDIS teams, you’d happily spend a couple of hours with, even without all the danger and adventure. Time War stories generally having a fairly doom laden tone. Yet Cass is probably the most purely fun set of Eighth Doctor adventurers since the early days of Lucie Miller.
Previously, Next Time gives us Fires of Pompeii writer James Moran’s first Doctor Who for Big Finish and he creates an adventure as funny and thrilling as anything on TV
The early scenes of Previously, Next Time are an absolute hoot, for instance. It’s a classic example of the Doctor using his own interrogation by the authorities to find out more than he tells. It’s incredibly entertainingly written, as you’d expect from James Moran, the writer of Fires of Pompeii. And it’s performed beautifully by McGann and Nadia Albina (recently seen on TV as Di in Flux) as interrogator Oshia. The result may be be the best this particular Who trope has ever been done.
Moran’s two parter takes up fully half the run time of the set, and is his first full cast Doctor Who script for Big Finish. But on the strength of Previously, Next Time let’s hope it’s far from the last.
Cass has a strong recurring theme of things that shouldn’t exist insisting on existing anyway, with Cass herself the unacknowledged elephant in the TARDIS
There’s a common thread running through all three of places, things, or people that simply shouldn’t exist. The Doctor’s usual innate sense of knowing when history has gone wrong somehow becoming ever more precarious the deeper into the Time War the universe falls. So the Doctor knows that the Verspertine is never found and the mystery of its disappearance never solved. Yet here they are in the middle of the effort to explore the wreck. He also knows that the site of the Daleks’ latest master plan is a completely uninhabited world. Yet they arrive to find a thriving society, and having to persuade the sceptical locals that a Dalek invasion force is on the way.
And, of course, it all echoes Cass’s own situation, whom we know should be dead even if she doesn’t. Some of the box set’s most subtly effective scenes cunningly place her in the position of gently, sympathetically explaining to people that they don’t, or shouldn’t, exist, all the while unaware of how close to home these issues really are. It all leads, too, to a cliffhanger so crafty you have to applaud its audaciousness. It leaves Big Finish’s door open for further adventures with Bliss or Cass, or even neither or both.
That most unexpected of things: a funny, energetic Time War romp, Cass is also the perfect point for new listeners to join the Eighth Doctor’s adventures
Considering it’s the fifth set in the ongoing Time War series, Cass is impressively accessible. It’s also fantastically clever and at times outrageously funny, with a cast virtually carrying their charisma around in overflowing buckets. McGann himself describes it in the accompanying interviews as the happiest, most fun time he can remember having while recording. And, after all, one should never argue with one’s Doctor.
Doctor Who: Cass
The Doctor (Paul McGann) and his great-grandson Alex (Sonny McGann) are back travelling the universe together… but when that universe is in the grips of a Time War, the unexpected lurks round every corner…
Cass Fermazzi (Emma Campbell-Jones) – the doomed pilot glimpsed in 2013’s Doctor Who special minisode, The Night of the Doctor – boards the TARDIS but, somehow, she’s meeting the Doctor for the first time…