Christopher Eccleston’s second series climaxes with a dramatic journey into darkness
It’s time to hold our sonic screwdrivers aloft, lit in tribute, as we say goodbye to Doctor Who’s northern star, Christopher Eccleston. Well, for the moment at least. Yes, with Shades of Fear, it’s the end of this second series of the Ninth Doctor Adventures. That’s a remarkable sentence of itself, and one of which the Big Finish team should be proud. Back in 2006, fans would have dearly loved access to parallel universes. Our one where we we met David Tennant’s swaggering, cheeky, Doctor of love, and the one where Eccleston stayed with all his bristling intensity. In a way it’s no different for any of the Doctors. And that, at its most pure, is Big Finish’s superpower – to let us see those days unlived. There’s been no third run of Ninth Doctor Adventures announced yet (yet!) So all the more reason to soak up every last moment.
The Colour of Terror brings the Doctor to a charity shop populated by an impressive guest cast, and under siege by a menace worthy of Sapphire and Steel
The three stories kick off with The Colour of Terror. The TARDIS arrives at a charity shop where the Doctor encounters its eccentric staff and clientele. There’s proprietor Mrs. Bevell (described by actor Susan Penhaligon a cross between Mrs. Slocombe and Hyacinth Bucket), her much abused assistant Robbie (George Naylor), local pensioner Pete (Frank Skinner), and Laura Rollins as Cath from the cafe.
Soon the group are besieged by the Vermeen, creatures worthy of Sapphire and Steel at its most disturbing and strange. Invading our reality through the colour red, they can possess anything crimson, from post boxes to ginger cats. But they want more. They want out to consume the world. And they think something very, very blue is the key. Reminiscent of Father’s Day and Flatline, it’s a genuinely creepy concept delivered with a terrifically balanced mix of claustrophobia and humanity. The fears and dreams of the group the Doctor’s thrown in provide the story’s emotional core. They’re every bit as important to Lizzie Hopley’s script as the unnerving hunger of the Vermeen.
Plants aren’t gentlemen as The Blooming Menace brings Wyndhamesque monsters to a Wodehousian world in a fun and breezy mashup
James Kettle’s middle entry The Blooming Menace finally asks one of the burning questions of the age: what would have happened if PG Woodehouse and John Wyndham had co-written a book together. The result is a broad farce set against a vegetable invasion of 1920s London. But these plants have one thing on their mind: matrimony. Yes, all the bright young men of clubland have fallen under the romantic spell of a strange walking planet brought back from a meteor crater on a Pacific island (the specific Pacific atoll alas untold.) Of all the chaps in London, only two seem immune. Enter confirmed bachelor and lifelong bride-dodger Toby Entwhistle (Dave Hearn) and his best chum Phil (Milanka Brooks). Fortunately, you can leave it Toby’s new valet, the Doctor, to make everything come right in the end.
This is a fine pastiche, if a little looser in its plotting than the finely tuned clockwork of the original novels. In fact there are questions here that wouldn’t be let pass in a more serious episode. The reaction of all the unaffected seems to be simply shrug and leave the thousands of amorous plants to it as they take over the streets. While even for Doctor Who, their life cycle and ultimate goal is pretty wild stuff. And the subplot of quite why Toby is immune to the charms of plant women feels like a dance that never quite arrives at its destination at the other end of the ballroom.
But with this sort of story, ultimately none of this matters so long as it’s funny. And there’s a lot to enjoy here, with a likeable guest cast giving it their all. Though if Wodehouse has never appealed to you before, you may find Blooming Menace equally hard work.
Red Darkness brings back “the teeth in the dark,” the Vashta Nerada, for their most compelling outing since the original Silence in the Library
Shades of Fear, and Series Two, concludes with Red Darkness. Though in truth it doesn’t feel like a Davies era finale. Rather, it’s more like one of the spookier entries that used to exist around episode nine or ten. Not surprising, perhaps, given that it features the return of the Vashta Nerada. The shadowy stars of Silence in the Library were introduced as part of that early 21st century trend of monsters tailored to a specific, thrilling, story concept. Yet successive writers have been surprisingly adept at expanding the lore of the Weeping Angels while keeping their essential appeal. Meanwhile, however, the Vashta Nerada have proven somewhat trickier.
Partly that’s down to the Doctor emphasising when we first meet them that they’re only hostile under extreme circumstances. So each new appearance has had to find some fresh excuse for them to turn maneater. That makes it all the more impressive that Red Darkness succeeds in doing it so beautifully. More than that, in actually making these “teeth in the night” more of a danger than ever. With shades, so to speak, of Planet of the Spiders, these are the descendants of your common or garden Vashta Nerada, unwittingly brought to a new colony world. Here, mutations have increased their ambitions beyond what a startup planet of a handful of people and livestock can satiate.
The heart of this particular red darkness lies with the humanity of the band of survivors fighting to reach safety
Like any good base under siege story, it hangs as much on the personalities and conflicts of the humans fighting to survive as the alien menace du jour. This is a format where only the most naive listener doesn’t go in knowing few of these people will survive. But Roy Gill’s script paints the surviving colonists clearly enough that it’s mostly impossible to guess which are doomed. Though when the opening moments introduce us to Callen (Adam Martyn) and his talking dog Doyle (Harki Bhambra) anyone familiar with Class creator Patrick Ness’s stated writing philosophy (“always kill the dog”) may find themselves metaphorically rolling up a newspaper and giving a firm “no” in Gill’s direction. Whether he winds up deserving a rap on the nose with it afterward, we’ll leave you to find out.
The race to find a place of safety from an ever expanding menace is thrilling stuff. Especially with some of the new tricks up the Vashta Nerada’s sleeves. There’s perhaps a touch too many domestic squabbles and angst amongst the colonists considering they could all die at any moment, but that’s a hazard of many such films and stories. Red Darkness can hold its head up high in the company of Silence in the Library. And any story that say that deserves high praise.
Designed more than any other Doctor to need a companion figure, the Ninth Doctor’s disconnect from humanity is increasingly clear
As he has throughout these Big Finish episodes, the Ninth Doctor is travelling solo. Ironic, as there’s possibly never been an incarnation more designed to need a companion than Eccleston’s. He’s someone explicitly conceived by Russell T Davies to be seen through another’s eyes rather than to be the audience’s identification figure.
He has a love/hate relationship with the human race, grumbling about us in general but enthusing about the spirit, bravery, and kindness of the individuals he meets. But his affection feels somehow one step removed from his hearts. More like that of a naturalist admiring and protecting an endangered species than anything more. At one point in Red Darkness he even directly compares his view of humanity to the way people feel about the family dog. While in Colour of Terror, it sometimes feels like he’s patiently listening to people spill out their human problems. All the while faintly bemused as to why they think he wants to hear them. Without someone like Rose to act as an interlocutor between his more abstract fondness for people and deeper emotional connection, it’s rare for these Ninth Doctor Adventures to hit as hard and as truly as Series One did in 2005.
As the wait for confirmation of The Ninth Doctor Adventures Series Three begins, there’s a hint of the range hitting a turning point and an opportunity for slight reinvention
For his part, Christopher Eccleston has been clear he doesn’t want a companion so as not to retread ground he first walked back then. But with two series, and twenty-four episodes, of solo adventures, it could be argued he’s at greater risk of repeating himself with more of the same than if took on a co-star (whether Billie Piper or a new voice.) Certainly, it feels like the Big Finish writers have explored this aspect of the character as thoroughly as they can.
So there are two things to write in bold capitals at the top of Blogtor Who’s wish list. The first for a Ninth Doctor Adventures Series Three to bring more madcap grins wrapped in battered leather for another window into that wonderful alternate universe. And the other is for the TARDIS, vast as it is, to get just a little bit more crowded.
Doctor Who: Shades of Fear
Alien threats come in many forms – and many different hues. A charity shop where customers vanish, a 1920s gentleman’s club besieged by giant plants, and a distant colony planet where death hides in darkness – wherever they manifest, the Doctor is on hand to fight every shade of fear…
Doctor Who – The Ninth Doctor Adventures: Shades of Fear is now available to own for just £24.99 (collector’s edition CD box set + download) or £19.99 (download only), exclusively here.