The Ninth Doctor explores Hidden Depths in three new stories reuniting him with the Sea Devils, Liv Chenka, and encountering new villain Trinity
The Ninth Doctor Adventures continues with more solo adventures for Christopher Eccleston’s Time Lord in Hidden Depths. Despite this being the sixth box set, there’s still no sign that the thrill will ever fade of hearing that unique electronic rattlesnake threatening its way through Murray Gold’s first, and arguably never bettered, take on the iconic theme. While Eccleston himself reminds us he’s one of the most skilled actors to ever take up the sonic screwdriver.
The Seas of Titan takes the Doctor to the frozen oceans of Titan and a long hidden of spacefaring Sea Devils. But can he finally achieve peace between the reptiles and the more recently arrived humans?
The theme of Hidden Depths is at its most literal in first episode The Seas of Titan. It’s another encounter between the Doctor and the Earth’s most ancient inhabitants, this time in their aquatic form as the Sea Devils. Fifty years on from their introduction of TV, telling new stories about the intelligent reptiles represents a challenge. Stick too rigidly to that original concept of humans and their awakening forerunners struggling to co-exist and it seems like a pointless exercise. But stray too far from it and they become just another monster. Break the Ice’s solution is incredibly effective in walking that line, creating a superior take on the creatures.
Dinosaurs on a Spaceship already establised that some Silurians had taken to the stars. So it’s less of a surprise to discover some Sea Devils had established a colony elsewhere in the solar system. Most specifically Jupiter’s moon Titan. But with the arrival of a human colony some decades ago, life has gotten decidedly more complicated. Worse, the Doctor’s inevitably found himself on Titan just in time for the humans to discover the Sea Devils’ presence.
Lizbeth Myles’ script strikes a satisfying balance between the familiar themes and concerns of the best Siliurian and Sea Devil stories, and crafting its own unique dilemmas and solutions
But it’s more than the novel setting that lifts the material this time. There’s the nature of the conflict for a start. The humans are harvesting of the icy sea’s ammonia for their own power plant, threatening the reptiles deep below. But more importantly, there’s the subtle remix of the age old trope of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ factions. There’s still internal fighting among the Sea Devils about making peace with humanity. Neither faction relishes the idea of wiping the humans out. However both are pragmatic that war might become the only option left to them. The difference is whether they think there are any other options left. Meanwhile the human colony’s initial response is defined much more by blind panic than in most of these stories.
It creates a dramatic tension that will leave you at the edge of your seat. Could the Doctor actually achieve peace this time? “Just this once, everybody stops killing each other,” so to speak. And as a special bonus, the accompanying interviews see Hollywood and RSC star Christopher Eccleston dropping into a pitch perfect Sea Devil impression. What more could you want? Total joy.
Lay Down Your Arms lays out its themes in rather heavy handed fashion
The Doctor similarly plays peacemaker in second story Lay Down Your Arms. He’s undercover as a music teacher in 19th century Germany’s premiere health spa. But before long he uncovers an alien conspiracy to transform the residents into lethal berserker warriors. It’s a powerful idea to build a story around, with the brainwashed humans recruited as cannon fodder in a war not of their making. Unfortunately, the story lays it on so thickly that the coda of Orphan 55 feels almost restrained in comparison. Blogtor lost track of the number of times our villains sneered out phrases like “what else is war?” or “isn’t every soldier?” on the topic of troops fighting and dying for reasons they don’t understand and for rewards they won’t share.
The script also runs foul of one of the inherent traps of these kind of Doctor Who stories. Lay Down Your Arms takes its name from the seminal pacifist novel by Bertha Von Suttner, who also fills the role of the Doctor’s pseudo companion du jour (or perhaps we should say ‘des tages’). Many celebrity historicals take great pains to avoid diluting the figure’s contribution to history. They avoid having a meeting with the Doctor too directly influence their work. But not only is Lay Down Your Arms (the play) incredibly blunt in its parallels to the themes of Lay Down Your Arms (the book), but its extended epilogue features the Doctor all but pulling out Bertha’s chair and putting the pen in her hand.
Christopher Eccleston has a lot of fun in an episode than shines a light on an often overlooked historical figure
Against all that, Jamie Parker is plainly having a lot of fun as the villains Trinity, giving a wonderfully snide and oily performance. Christopher Eccleston isn’t far behind him, revelling in the Doctor’s good humour even as the world collapses around him. Plus, frankly anything that brings the unfairly obscure Bertha and her Nobel work (available for free via the Guttenberg Project) should be welcomed with open arms.
Flatpack revisits the Doctor’s friendship with Liv and Tania as they’re trapped together in a cleverly conceived retail hell
Hidden Depths concludes with Flatpack, and the return of two of the Doctor’s former friends. When a new self assembly furniture store, Flatpack, sets the Doctor’s timey sense tingling he investigates and finds his former Baker Street housemates Liv Chenka and Tania Bell having a Sunday browse. But from the unsettling pre-credits sequence on, the mysteries run deeper than usual even for Doctor Who. Not only why the staff all wear the same creepy blank masks, but why none of the shoppers find it alarming. Meanwhile, the exit doors seem to have gone missing. Strangest of all, nobody can agree on exactly how long Flatpack has stood on the site – days, months, or decades.
Writer John Dorney takes the very brave move of tipping the audience off, Columbo style, to many of the answers very early on, even as our heroes take most of the run time to catch up. But it pays off remarkably well. Rather than frustrating it simply adds to the sense of the Doctor, Liv and Tania as rats in a trap. It creates a keen claustrophobia even as events play out in a open plan warehouse store.
The ways in which the Doctor is always the same, but also how far the character can be twisted in new ways underpins Flatpack
Flatpack makes less of these reunion between our three leads than it might have done. In a way, it’s appropriate to the release schedule for Liv’s adventures that she expresses it hard to say goodbye to ‘her’ Doctor knowing that he could still pop into her at any moment. But there’s also little contrast made between the suave, gently ironical Eighth Doctor and the often wilder, looser, and extremely northern Ninth. Instead the emphasis is on how the two are alike. Ultimately, those few references aside, there’s not much here that couldn’t have equally been a new Paul McGann adventure.
However, if that represents a slight missed opportunity, the story itself is quality stuff. One of its great successes is showing the Liv and Tania relationship without the pressures and traumas of Stranded, as the two engage in some lovely banter and gentle teasing (“Well deployed,” admires Liv and one particularly nice jab from Tania.) And there’s always something pleasing about subverting those moments when the Doctor strides carefree into an obvious trap. This time it soon dawns on him it that maybe he won’t escape after all. The story also allows Christopher Eccleston some real opportunities to shine, with some scenes reminding us just how gifted he is.
Hidden Depths gives Eccleston new ways to remind us just how good he is
If Hidden Depths comprises a somewhat inconsistent trio of stories, the high points are still very high indeed. While any opportunity to return to the Ninth Doctor’s coral console room for more adventures by Christopher Eccleston’s side are always welcome.
Doctor Who: Hidden Depths
From a moon with poison seas, to a 19th-century health spa, even somewhere as every day as a furniture store on a Sunday afternoon – there are always hidden depths and unseen dangers to uncover!
Doctor Who –The Ninth Doctor Adventures: Hidden Depths is now available to own as a collector’s edition CD box set (+ download for just £24.99) or a digital download only (for just £19.99), exclusively here.