Purity Unleashed sets the Doctor and Mel on a quest to restore Hebe to reality, though the woman herself is greatly missed in these three episodes
One of Blogtor Who’s most anticipated Doctor Who releases of the year has arrived from Big Finish. After the shocking cliffhanger to previous Sixth Doctor Adventures set Purity Unleashed we finally find out what happens next.
Though anyone hoping for a resolution in classic style, and tied up and forgotten about with 90 seconds of a brief reprise, will be disappointed. Instead, the arc across these three episodes calls to mind the classic Leonard Nimoy quote about Star Trek III. That there was no real prospect of a film called The Search for Spock ending with “Captain Kirk turning to the camera and saying ‘Sorry, we didn’t find him.'” But, equally, that reunion was always going to be the last minute climax of a grand adventure. And the same is true of the Doctor and Mel’s quest to restore their friend Hebe, mysteriously erased from history. It’s no spoiler to say that yes, they find her. She’s on the cover after al. But equally not a spoiler to say… it takes a while.
In a way it leaves Purity Unleashed trapped within the brilliance of its own conceit. Ruth Madeley’s performance as Hebe: irascible, difficult, but loveable, has been a highlight of these sets. Yet by design she’s hardly in this third volume. It means the listener feels her absence as keenly as the Doctor and Mel do.
With Broadway Belongs to Me! Matthew Sweet delivers a musical comedy about the rise of fascism in pre-war America that somehow works
We begin in Broadway Belongs to Me! with our surviving heroes utterly perplexed by how or why the timeline has changed and taking rather desperate measures to find out. We meet them in a diner in 1930s New York. It’s the latest stop in an apparently lengthy slog through random temporal hot spots. With no other clues, they’re reduced to staking them out on the off chance someone has been mucking about with them. Mel initially thinks Nazis in Central Park is a sure clue of time going awry. But the Doctor sadly knows better…
In crafting his funny, clever script, Matthew Sweet plays with two fundamental truths. Firstly that the New York Nazis, like their Illinois cousins, were as stupid and ridiculous as they were hateful: unlikely figures to inspire a populist uprising. But secondly, and rather more uncomfortably, that pre-War America’s anti-Fascist resolve was never truly tested. Soon the Doctor and Mel stumble across Behold America!, a Broadway musical that shouldn’t exist. What might happen if the devil really does have all the best tunes? And there’s definitely a glint of mischief in Sweet’s eye as he dares listeners not to tap their toe along with rousing showstoppers like racial purity anthem An All-American America.
The first episode provides a gleefully fun diversion, but leaves listeners eager to get on with the quest
There’s no less mischief in revealing that Mel loathes musicals. In fact, she hates every second of having to join the production as part of the Doctor’s latest plan. It’s hard not to imagine genuine West End legend Bonnie Langford swallowing back the laughter as she prepares to deliver another of Mel’s rants on the topic.
Ultimately, Broadway hides its more serious ideas within a fluffy concoction of light hearted hijinks. It’s what allows it to almost get away with a very silly series of reveals towards the end and an evil plan which seems to leave even the Doctor shrugging ‘is that it?’ in not so many words. It’s all an undoubtedly fun diversion. But it’s a detour from the main plot that might leave you a little impatient. After all, the quest, as a great man once said, is the quest.
Imogen Stubbs delicately pivots McBride from politically incorrect professor to sociopathic supervillain with impressive sincerity
The remaining two episodes Purification and Time-Burst brings that quest to the fore. The Doctor’s tentative discovery of a way to track the frayed edges of the rip which tore Hebe out of reality back to their starting point brings the TARDIS to New Zealand in 1910. It’s here that he and Mel finally discover what Professor McBride has become. With the help of stolen alien time travel technology she continues her agenda to ‘improve’ the human race. And to wipe generations of LGBT and disabled people from future history.
Imogen Stubbs navigates the difficult task of transforming McBride from politically incorrect academic to full on megalomaniacal would-be ruler of the universe with rare skill. Indeed, the perfectly judged skewering of the civility of evil remains a highlight of the set. “Well now you’re just ranting,” she sighs at one point as the Doctor calls out her bigotry for what it is. Her genuine belief that this means she wins the argument as infuriating here as in real life. As a villain, she’s the perfect nemesis for this particular Doctor, his righteous bluster sliding off her armour of mock reasonableness, without leaving a dent.
The difficulties of playing defence against a time meddler are deftly sketched, as the Doctor stumbles blind in opposition to McBride’s master plan
The plots both place the Doctor on the back foot. It’s a tidy illustration of the dangers of fighting back against changes in history. McBride knows her agenda and the tweaks she wants to make down to the meter and the minute, with a full overview of how that pebble will start a rockslide in decades to come. The Doctor, meanwhile, has nothing but his own memory of the history books to go by. He’s reduced to guesswork about what major events his new nemesis might upend. So while the Doctor ensures Captain Scott’s ill fated journey to the South Pole gets underway unimpeded, McBride spirits a single lowly sailor away.
A visit to the Blitz is equally difficult. Changes are being made but who, the Doctor wonders, was originally supposed to die and who to live? And can he bear the role of history’s executioner either way? In Time-Burst they track her down to Sheffield during the Industrial Revolution. She’s there buying up factories in the countdown to the infamous flood disaster of 1910.
McBride plots to speed up human science and slow down social progress. She hopes to create the perfect environment for eugenics to become a social norm in the 20th century. Colin Baker proves his acting skills yet again as he makes us feel every ounce of the moral weight this places on the Doctor’s shoulders. Two versions of history now exist and only one can survive. But even putting things back as they should be will come with a terrible cost in lives undone.
Focusing on the ‘how’ and ‘when’ of McBride’s schemes for a ‘purified’ human race partially obscures her evil ‘why’
The moral debate leans a little too much on the personal cost of losing Hebe, though, rather than the wider genocide. It means we at times skirt close to arguing whether the ends justify the means. In doing so it dilutes the message that the ends themselves are utterly evil. The Doctor repeatedly tries to appeal to her better nature, as if she’s merely misguided. It’s ironic as he likely wouldn’t if she looked like Davros and her superior race looked like Daleks. Upping the stakes to a potential collapse of reality itself further pulls focus away from just how monstrous the professor’s vision is.
However, although Purity Unleashed gets too bogged down in the mechanics of its plots to fully explore its themes, those themes are still rare and exciting to see attacked head on in Doctor Who. Especially with actors as talented as Baker, Stubbs, and Langford working their magic to bring them to life. Naturally, a certain spiky marine biologist joins them in the final scenes, as surely as Kirk finds Spock. And that promises the next volume of the Sixth Doctor Adventures will be an equally compulsory listen.
Bonus audiobook The Doctor and his Amazing Technicolour Nightmare Coat aims for listeners’ funny bones but doesn’t quite hit the mark despite a wonderfully dry reading by Rosie Jones
Purity Unleashed also includes a bonus audiobook by Gary Russell, The Doctor and his Amazing Technicolour Nightmare Coat. It’s winningly read by Rosie Jones, who throws every ounce of her considerable charisma at the microphone. It’s nevertheless not nearly as funny as it would like to be. Merging an off brand approximation of Terry Pratchett’s wry tone and the Airplane! approach of throwing so many gags per minute at you that some must surely stick, those jokes rarely merit more than a slight smile. A lot of the humour comes from the Sixth Doctor being a vain, brusque, inconsiderate egoist. In another context that might work better, but it sits uneasily in a set alongside Colin Baker’s modern avuncular teddy bear.
Doctor Who: Purity Unleashed
Marine biologist Hebe Harrison (Ruth Madeley) has vanished from the timelines and the Doctor and Mel must find a way of getting their new friend back! But little do they realise what perils lie ahead – or who stands against them…
Big Finish listeners can save money by purchasing this box set as part of the 14-release Classic Doctors Bundle for £274 (collector’s edition CD box set + download) or £237 (download only). A 12-release bundle is also available from £198.