The Ninth Doctor heads Into the Stars in three new stories which perfectly fit this most battle weary of Time Lords
At this point, Doctor Who fans listening to Christopher Eccleston’s latest contribution should tie an elastic band around their wrist to snap against their skin at regular intervals. Just to shock themselves out of any hint of complacency about this most miraculous of Big Finish gets. Eccleston made no secret of his original motivations to return. In part he wanted to keep his passion for his craft alive during the pandemic. And to keep the bills paid when it made theatre and television work difficult or impossible. So there’s no better testament to the quality of the Ninth Doctor Adventures so far than the fact he’s sticking around even as people return to in-person recording. Because as everyone knows, just like Tegan, he knows not to stick around once something stops being fun.
But what of Into the Stars, which is, incredibly, the sixth boxset of new adventures for the Ninth Doctor? The set contains three more stories which, like previous set, Back to Earth, fall into a very broad theme. This time it’s the Doctor in space, which admittedly feels as tenuous as a themed Comedy Central Friends marathon. It’s not even as if they take place in a great beyond of unknowably alien life. Instead, as in Series One itself, the human race looms large in each of the stories. But there is another subtle thread which runs through Into the Stars, as this Doctor’s slightly more callous, unforgiving nature peeking out at points. But there’s always some wider lesson for him as he journeys towards becoming the man Rose knew.
On the moon Salvation Nine the Doctor stumbles across a village unique in the universe
We open with the strongest story in the set in Salvation Nine. Timothy X Atack has built his script on the foundation of a single, wonderful, idea: a colony of pacifist Sontarans. The Doctor is agog when he encounters these distant descendants of a Sontaran death squad marooned on the remote forest moon of Salvation Nine a thousand years before. With nobody to fight or kill, these ‘Niners’ have simply gotten on with the business of living. They sing songs, tell jokes, and live to a ripe old age. And while the Doctor plays anthropologist, embedding himself in their society and forming friendships with the comically loveable Lops (Dan Starkey) and colony leader Gaznak (Josie Lawrence), there’s a ticking clock lending urgency to his mission. Well, naturally; these Sontarans might not be blood-thirsty war mongers, but this is still Doctor Who after all.
An armada of ships for a hundred peace loving planets are coming to blow Salvation Nine of the star maps. The Doctor seeks to intercept them and persuade them of the Niners’ unusual nature. But with a truth this improbable how can he and the Niners possibly convince the human leader Navarch (Pooja Shah)?
Salvation Nine’s script is full to the brim with one inspired idea after another, redefining everything we thought we knew about Sontarans
Atack’s script succeeds in what all the best Doctor Who stories aspire to be. It establishes a dance where comedy, adventure, and making deeper philosophical points orbit each other in perfect balance. Because one inspired notion isn’t enough for Salvation Nine. It packs its description of the society the Niners have built, from feeding, to reproduction, to growing old, with similar strokes of genius. The reassuring presence of Dan Starkey also helps things along considerably. Not only does he establish the continuity that these are Sontarans, but he provides a familiar anchor to a certain other Sontaran in particular. After all, Strax adapted, grudgingly, to life as a Victorian butler. So why shouldn’t successive generations of Sontarans cut off from Sontar lighten up a little further?
Starkey’s ability to hit a line with pinpoint comic accuracy comes to the fore again. He always knows when to play it broadly, and when to keep it straight. Most importantly he knows when to just let a hint of humour in at the edges of a line. The scenes were Lops and Gaznak have to pass themselves off as regular Sontarans are particular delights. The Doctor’s anger, briefly willing to leave the innocent Niners to die due to the crimes of their ancestors, is a shocking moment. But as it passes it underlines what makes this Doctor different. It’s ultimately part of the journey this most battle scarred of Doctor’s is on. It also leads in to his change of heart in one of the most joyously weird scenes Eccleston has ever performed. And the actor is audibly having a fantastic time doing it too.
Last of the Zetacene places the Doctor in a morally grey space as he fights to save a quartet of villains from their own karma, but not very hard
James Kettle’s middle story, Last of the Zetacene also reflects on this Doctor’s sympathy for righteous anger. It doesn’t quite reach the highs of the first story, due to some slightly clunky plotting and dialogue. But there’s still a lot to recommend this tale of septillionaires assembling on the space station Stage Three to play a high stakes card game for ownership of the last member of a soon to be extinct species, the Zetacene Swine. Nicolas Colicos, Martyn Ellis, Joanne Pearce and Maureen O’Brien throw their all into the horrid bunch of galactic 1%ers.
If going to so much trouble over a pig seems a little facile, it’s part of the broader point. All four routinely place their own pleasures over the lives and fortunes of everyone else. But, more than that, those pleasure are exceedingly trite and trivial. The Rotter collects smells in a scrap book, like a dog particularly proud of the fox poo it just rolled in. Luton collects anything and everything at all, just clutter for its own sake. Succeeding is instantly familiar as the type who gets his kicks murdering endangered animals. Finally Selo is at least the purest of the lot by being entirely obsessed with the acquisition of money, with no other interests at all.
It’s a particular delight to hear Maureen O’Brien here. She steps outside the realms of thoughtful, keen, Vicki to relish playing an absolute monster. Her secondary role, as a giant, ballroom dancing spider, in freeflowing luvvie mode.
The story raises questions it ultimately doesn’t have compelling answers for, leading to a somewhat muddled conclusion
It goes without saying that their plans go terribly awry. First thanks to the Doctor and his new friend Nel as they sabotage the card game. And then as the Zetacene Swine escapes its bonds and goes rampaging across Stage Three on a quest for revenge. It’s here the Doctor’s cold hearted side comes to the fore once more. He acts to save the wicked foursome from the consequences of their own actions, but he’s rather ambivalent about whether he succeeds of not. “I don’t judge, I don’t condemn” as he says of the Zetacene’s actions.
It leads up to a resolution that smacks of two potential endings having been merged together in a compromise, but the end result doesn’t quite hold together. Similarly, quite how a double decker bus sized boar keeps sneaking up on people indoors is never really explained. But perhaps Last of the Zetacene’s biggest problem is that a story where even the Doctor doesn’t care much if he wins or loses can’t help but feel curiously low stakes.
Break the Ice finishes the set with Pip Torrens providing an icy villain in a clash of acting titans
The action concludes with Break the Ice. It’s a story that sticks its varied influences in a blender yet still feels like a classic Doctor Who scenario. The Doctor arrives on a space station in orbit around Venus during an era when the human race is preparing to brave interstellar travel for the first time. The station is a test bed for developing new sciences and technologies at a safe distance from the Earth itself. But an experiment into cryogenics has gone terribly wrong, plunging the subject to absolute zero. Everyone is relieved when he not only survives but swiftly makes a full recovery. Only the Doctor realizes that whatever emerged from that pod, it’s not human.
So begins a fast paced drama reminiscent of television episode Waters of Mars, as the Doctor and his new allies Lenni and Pal’s battle for survival is secondary to the need to ensure not one snowflake makes it back to Earth. There’s a similar sense of impending doom throughout too. Our heroes’ position grows ever more desperate as time ticks by and their adversary ever more powerful. Where Break the Ice surpasses that template, however, is in having a compelling and unspeakably chilling villain, rather than a practically mute and almost unknowable threat. Celebrated actor Pip Torrens (The Crown, Preacher) does a predictably amazing job layering on the contempt and cruelty to his Jack Frost. His scenes with Eccleston are electric throughout and while Big Finish always populate their schedule with outstanding actors, there’s a real thrill to hearing two acting titans battle it out.
The story is lifted by a guest cast of characters on their own emotional journeys through the worst day of their lives
Every fan has different levels of tolerance for the quasi-mystical intruding into Doctor Who. And Jack’s origins will certainly push those barriers for some. But there’s no doubting the sheer controlled power Torrens brings to the role, echoing Gabriel Woolf’s Sutekh in his ability to make even the Doctor seem small and threatened in his presence. Meanwhile, a supporting cast of unusual emotional complexity makes for a strong collection of characters to care about.
Lenni is yet another in the line of pseudo-companions in the Ninth Doctor Adventures, as the scientist whose work has been hijacked to enable Frost to enter our world from beyond. But it sidesteps the usual issue of feeling like a companion introduction that ends with the Doctor’s new friend simply… not coming aboard by establishing from her very first scene exactly why she wouldn’t want to leave her life behind for the TARDIS. Her mental health issues and driving motivation are both sensitively handled too. Cruciallly, there’s also a well integrated part of her character rather than a quirk or a plot device. Similarly, the project director Pal starts off as an insufferable company man wagging fingers at damage to company equipment, but steps out of the cliche as the full stakes become clear.
Into the Stars proves there’s more fun to be had at the side of a Doctor having the adventures only he could
Into the Stars, like every new Ninth Doctor Adventures release, feels like a minor miracle. It impressively channels the unique energy that makes the Ninth Doctor special. And it provides three stories that arguably couldn’t be told with any other incarnation. And with its range of imagination, humour and drama, it’s clear that things aren’t going to stop being fun for Christopher Eccleston, or the Big Finish audience, any time soon.
Doctor Who — The Ninth Doctor Adventures: Into the Stars is now available to own as a collector’s edition 4-disc CD box set (+ download for just £24.99) or a digital download only (for just £19.99) from www.bigfinish.com.