Purity Undreamed brings passion and style to what’s becoming one of Big Finish’s most exciting ranges
Purity Undreamed follows on from May’s Water Worlds to give us a second boxset for the Sixth Doctor, Mel, and new friend Hebe Harrison. It gives the trio three separate adventures, but with a greater sense of unity than some Big Finish boxsets. There’s a very definite throughline here, both in terms of ongoing character evolution and theme. Rather than just a random title. the notion of purity recurs throughout these stories. Various villains prove themselves obsessed with purity of the mind, or purity of the body; even purity in history. It makes for a satisfyingly consistent mini-series that manages to surprise and delight as it builds towards its climax.
By the end of this second set, Ruth Madeley’s Hebe Harrison sneaks her way into listeners’ hearts and firmly locks the door behind her
Last time, Blogtor Who speculated that the spiky and difficult Hebe was a deliberate echo of the evolution of Colin Baker’s own character. Someone conceived to challenge audiences before gradually winning them over. But it’s still a lovely surprise to report just how sneakily and successfully Hebe worms her way into your affections. By the end of Purity Undreamed, listeners may well be slightly surprised to find themselves in full “Hebe dies, we riot!” mode. A lot of the credit must surely go to producer Jac Rayner and actor Ruth Madeley. Madeley keeps Hebe sprightly and engaging throughout. There’s also an audible twinkle as she stays relentlessly horny on main no matter the surrounding danger. Whether fish-man, space-man, or robo-man, if they’re a cute-man, Hebe will get their phone number.
Rayner, meanwhile has form in this area of course. Her scripts in the early days of Big Finish meant she had an instrumental hand in softening the Sixth Doctor’s characterisation and evolving him steadily into the ‘Oul Sixey’ beloved of fans ever since. She’s also a mistress of the master plan. Here, even threads which niggle a little early on are later drawn together into a highly satisfying pattern. It’s a genuinely astonishing achievement. It makes Purity Undreamed worthy of a second listen once you understand the writing team’s full intent.
Providing the Doctor with a home base in 2020s Sheffield gives Purity Undreamed a feel of thoroughly modern Doctor Who which extends to the storytelling
One key element is that the Doctor, Mel, and Hebe now have a home base of sorts. Between trips in the Box, they spend their days in and around Sheffield University in 2022. If that feels a little close to home for present day Doctor Who on TV, it’s true that there’s at least one moment simply crying out for a “PC Khan” reference. With Big Finish’s licence having one of its periodic expansions soon, that’s a tantalising possibility for the next set.
It’s a very modern feeling setup in more ways than one. The set calls to mind the early Russell T Davies era, with its wider supporting cast. Here the home team is led by Coronation Street’s Cherylee Houston as Hebe’s best friend Elsie. Her husband Ron, who’s very much the Jackie Tyler of the group, is played by Houston’s fellow Corrie star, and real life husband, Toby Hadoke. (He may have done the odd other thing you’ve heard of too.)
Also along for the ride is anthropology professor Patricia McBride, played by Imgoen Stubbs. Stubbs is, even by Big Finish standards, an excellent bit of casting. And an essential one, given the shades and layers she needs to bring to McBride. In what listeners might suspect is fitting a familiar pattern, Purity Undreamed introduces McBride as sarcastic, brittle, and not a little arrogant. Nevertheless, the Doctor takes a shine to her and seeks to broaden her horizons. Her awe at the Doctor’s world, and how it changes her, becomes a thread which runs through the three stories.
The Mindless Ones introduces our new wider cast while taking aim at the vogue for positivity above all else
We begin the action with The Mindless Ones from Paul Magrs. The new ‘Mindlessness Clinic’ has opened on campus, offering struggling or stressed students and staff support. It’s run by the icily pleasant Mr. Betterment, who talks like someone fed an AI 100 hours of mindfulness podcasts and his patter is what it came up with. Naturally, this being Doctor Who, whatever Graham O’Brien might have once said, there are aliens at work in Sheffield. The success of the clinic in turning out seemingly well balanced, content, students doesn’t depend on breathing exercises. It’s more to do with a big machine covered in blinky lights doing things to their brains. (You’re shocked, I can tell.)
While Colin Baker rises to the challenge of dissecting Betterment’s spiel with the precision of Matthew Sweet operating on a junk science newspaper article, Hebe catch up with Elsie. Though she discover her not quite the woman she remembers. Meanwhile, Mel meets Professor McBride, who has reasons of her own to get to the truth.
After some thickly laid broadsides, a rewarding ending reveals a more subtle approach to The Mindless Ones’ themes
You’d be forgiven for thinking at first that The Mindless Ones is a little awkward in its themes. McBride is introduced as one of those brilliant but ineffectual lecturers, who takes the high failure rate of her course as proof of her own superiority by virtue of understanding her subject herself, rather than of her own negligence in communicating that understanding to them. Yet it initially feels like the narrative is expecting us to agree with her in her various polemics. Even her motivation in bringing Betterment down is a little suspect. It comes only after a clinic ‘client’ gains the confidence to tell her a few home truths during a lecture.
In parallel, Hebe becomes suspicious because Elsie has put away the goth makeup and trauma-filled poetry of their uni years for a plush office and pastel blouses. And worst of all, an offensively middle class husband in Ron, with Toby Hadoke channelling his best Richard Briers in full suburban angst mode.
In fact, the extent to which Hebe puts down and rejects the ‘new’ Elsie feels a little uncomfortable. Betterment is the clear villain, yet McBride and Hebe seem a little intolerant of people stepping outside their pre-assigned boxes too. There’s a satisfying pay-off to it all, however, that rewards the listener’s trust in Magrs. All the same, the troubled but creative person who goes to therapy and comes back content, bland and ‘wrong’ is one deeply unhelpful SF trope long overdue a trip to a farm upstate with lots of room to woosh about in.
Reverse Engineering takes the TARDIS to Sweden and mysterious goings on at a remote clinic
The conflict in second story Reverse Engineering by Jonathan Morris is much more clear cut. Professor McBride summons the Doctor, Mel and Hebe to a remove institute in Sweden where she’s uncovered some alarming experiments. A bit of pre-Moffatian timey-wimeyness places Mel undercover a couple of weeks previously, while the Doctor and Hebe follow to uncover the truth. Like a set of nested Russian dolls, it’s a mystery that keeps getting deeper and stranger. A scheme promising to rejuvenate the super-wealthy proves to be simply providing funding for a quest to unlock the secrets of ancient DNA to create a ‘pure’ human. But as the Doctor discovers, even that is sitting on top of a much more ancient and dangerous problem.
Once again Purity Undreamed delights in having the Doctor skewer the pompous pseudo-scientific babblegab of a sales pitch. While the way Morris’ script frowns at the pursuit of racial purity as not just unspeakably evil, but also very deeply stupid adds a lovely note not seen enough in Doctor Who. There are appropriate callbacks to the misguided plans in both Invasion of the Dinosaurs and City of Death too. And like them it’s a never more timely reminder that the ‘good old days’ are often just a reactionary fantasy.
Chronomancer concludes the set with a rousing call to arms by Colin Baker’s Doctor to stand against cruelty and bigotry, no matter how ‘civilly’ it’s expressed
Finale Chronomancer brings everything to a rousing climax, and marks Purity Undreamed out as something special. It brings together everything we’ve seen, and everything our TARDIS travellers have experienced, with such subtle skill and such a firm grasp of its themes that it feels akin to a preview of what the post-Years and Years, post-It’s A Sin Russell T Davies might deliver next year. And that’s true, too, of the sense of righteous anger that burns through every page of Robert Valentine’s script.
At its most basic level, it’s the story of two alien time travellers who have crashed into present day Sheffield, making it the unwitting battleground for their final duel. They battle to decide the future fate of the universe, as is always the way with these things. But the real heart of the drama lies in the Doctor’s utter disgust at some of the philosophies at work. He builds himself into his finest speech of towering outrage since Trial of a Time Lord. All the more stirring for echoing some of the most infuriating discourse of recent years, it’s a moment that may have you breaking into spontaneous applause in the middle of your commute.
The Doctor as a moral force is one of Doctor Who’s most enduringly powerful aspects. To have him so passionate that, no, there can be no meeting in the middle or ‘civil discourse’ between those who simply wish to exist and those who would have them wiped from the face of society, is genuinely stirring. As is his conviction that mere ‘tolerance’ of people of different abilities, races, sexual orientations, and gender identities, is nothing to be proud of.
The new Sixth Doctor Adventures have introduced one of Big Finish’s most compelling ongoing arcs almost by stealth
It all leads to a stunning cliffhanger that thoroughly blindsided Blogtor Who. It’s an ending that hints that with these new Sixth Doctor Adventures, Rayner and her team have cunningly led the audience unwittingly into the spiritual successor of Stranded. The Hebe era is proving to be much more than ‘just’ assorted adventures with a new Big Finish companion. Rather this is shaping up to be a series with deeper, more important things to say than typical Doctor Who. And with those messages being delivered with such passion and style by both cast and crew, it’s shaping up to be the most exciting era for the Sixth Doctor since the days of Evelyn Smythe.
Indeed, the only negative is that leaving us waiting until next year for volume three seems downright cruel and unusual.
Doctor Who: The Sixth Doctor Adventures – Purity Undreamed
The Doctor heads back to Earth with Mel and Hebe in tow, little dreaming what lies ahead. Accompanied by their new friend, Professor Patricia McBride, alien threats abound, dangers lurk, and the cost of meddling with time is more than anyone is prepared to pay.
Doctor Who: The Sixth Doctor Adventures – Purity Undreamed is available now from www.bigfinish.com