Come in Number Nine, your time is up! One last set of Ninth Doctor Adventures brings Christopher Eccleston’s incarnation into previously forbidden territory

 

“Let’s just say ‘au revoir.'” “Let’s not. Goodbye.” It’s an appropriate exchange for what it seems will be Christopher Eccleston’s last foray into time and space for the foreseeable future. But if this is the final installment of the Ninth Doctor Adventures for a while, we mustn’t be ungrateful. When Eccleston finally took up Big Finish’s standing offer to rejoin the Doctor Who family it was mainly because the pandemic had left him at a loose end. But his joy in making them, and what’s more, his surprise at his own joy, shone through. Back in the days of that first announcement, few would have taken a bet that have wound up with 37 new episodes of the Ninth Doctor, almost three times as many as he starred in on television.

But if the Ninth Doctor has to go out, at least he’s going out in style. It’s unclear if anyone making Star-Crossed was aware it might be the last for now. But whether deliberately, or by pure chance, it seizes its moment to push this Doctor into new territory. River Song’s presence acts as a catalyst similar to John Hurt’s Doctor encountering his successors. But in this case, thes apparent proof positive that not only does he have a future, but a future in which he allows himself to be happy, is not a comfort. Instead it troubles him deeply. Deeply enough that by the end of the three stories, he’s finally ready to drop the happy-go-lucky persona and admit to his very real Time War trauma.

 

Francesca Mills plays Bethany, an asexual woman being hunted by a killer dating app in Swpie Right (c) Big Finish Doctor Who Ninth Doctor Adventures
Francesca Mills plays Bethany, an asexual woman being hunted by a killer dating app in Swpie Right (c) Big Finish

Swipe Right echoes new TV Doctor Who on a planet in thrall to a social media app

But before, like River herself, we get too out of order, we need to go back to the start. The first story in this set is John Dorney’s social media satire Swipe Right, appearing with perfect timing to compliment Dot and Bubble on TV. The Doctor visits the planet Crell where thanks to the Matchmaker dating app the world lives by one choice. Date or die. Meanwhile, River Song is on Crell investigating too. And when they both try and infiltrate the app from within by signing up, there’s no prizes for who the Matchmaker thinks is the perfect partner.

Like an intergalactic SF version of The Lobster everyone on this human colony world is racing to beat a countdown ticking even louder than a biological clock. We only get so many chances to couple up with one of your matches on the app. But if you prove yourself irredeemably single, the Matchmaker’s lethal robot enforcers will knock on your door to take you out. And yes, we do mean in a Mafia type of way.

 

Three dysfunctional couples feature in this love and war of the worlds, and none more dysfunctional than the Doctor and River

Swipe Right is a story of couples who aren’t really couples. There’s the Doctor and River’s new friends. The asexual Bethany actually almost would rather die than go on any more dates. While the highly strung Julien is on his very last chance for love, clinging to every passing woman life a life preserver. But it’s the Doctor’s reaction to River that provides the story with it’s greatest drama. He’s utterly, totally, appalled at the very idea of her. For her part, finally meeting a Doctor immune to her charms catches River badly off guard. His treatment of her borders on the cruel at times, and she’s the most hurt that we’ve ever seen her. It’s a fascinating new dynamic to add to River’s diary.

The real stars of the episode, though, are Beth Chalmers as Natalia and David Holt as Barclay. The recurring visits to the married couple’s struggling bistro are about as close as we’ll ever come to the TARDIS materalising in Fawlty Towers. Every put down, acid tongued witticism, and scathing remark is deserving of three Michelin stars.

 

Face of the Apocalypse reunites Christopher Eccleston with his Let Him Have It co-star Paul Reynolds (c) Big Finish Doctor Who Ninth Doctor Adventures. The two actos hug in the recording studio
Face of the Apocalypse reunites Christopher Eccleston with his Let Him Have It co-star Paul Reynolds (c) Big Finish

Face of the Apocalypse has timely commentary on the impossibility of making someone love you if they won’t

For middle entry Face of the Apocalypse Lizzie Hopley offers up more dysfunctional couplings for our entertainment. A first act that sees the Doctor vexed to discover River in the most secure bank vault in the galaxy, and knee deep in alarm bells and flashing lights, is really just a prelude to one legendary couple meeting another. Keetree and Spore shared a timeless love near the dawn of the universe. A love so pure and true it inspired millions of years of peace and stability. It’s a myth the Doctor’s adored since childhood so he’s overjoyed to discover the pair are real. Unfortunately, they also really can’t stand the sight of each other. With the entire future of the universe hanging in the balance, can “Dr. Sweetie” and “Curly Miss” help two primordial deities find love?

Parallels abound. The Doctor wants Keetree and Spore to rekindle the love he thinks is their destny, while continuing to fight the idea that he has a fate of his own with River Song. The Doctor’s once and future wife, meanwhile, has to contend with a stalker. One convinced that theirs is the great love destined to see the worlds aflame. Face of the Apocalypse’s central idea – that love will blossom or it won’t, but attempts to force it never work – may be hardly originally.

But it’s all charmingly and authentically delivered. Most of all Flux’s Nadia Albini and Eccleston’s old Let Him Have It co-star Paul Reynolds turn in such delightful performances as Keetree and Spore. In fact, Blogtor Who would happily listen to a whole box set of their fond rural bickering. It’s all lovely Worzel Gummidge meets The Darling Buds of May stuff.

With a fiery apocalypse thrown in for good measure, obviously.

 

Christopher Eccleston at the recording of The Ninth Doctor Adventures Series One (c) Tony Whitmore Doctor Who Ninth Doctor Big Finish
It’s goodbye to Christopher Eccleston’s Ninth Doctor for the moment (c) Tony Whitmore

Time storm wracked Archipelago may give you deja vu, but is a searingly powerful character piece

Appropriately, we flip the pages of River Song’s diary back to where we began this review with final story Archipelago. River has done the most River Song thing imaginable to the one Doctor unable to forgive it. She’s remotely triggered the TARDIS to make a forced landing on the time storm wracked planet Fortuna. It’s a planet that’s impossible to escape from, so naturally marooning the TARDIS there is the one sure method to make the Doctor find a way.

He’s not disappointed. He’s furious.

Listeners of the War Master range may wonder if the storm’s timey wimey effects extend to some powerful echoes of the past

In its basic outline, Tim Foley’s script for Archipelago has a striking resemblance to the same author’s War Master story The Long Despair. In the earlier story a Time Lord is stranded on a water planet all but abandoned due a temporal disaster years before. He voyages to the heart of the time storm on an old fashioned boat of wood and canvas. He’s accompanied by a captain hunting for the father he lost to the storm long ago. But the closer they get to the centre, the more bizarre and weird the temporal phenomena afflicting the vessel and her crew.

Here, a Time Lord is marooned on a planet evacuated a decade ago following a temporal disaster. One of the few to remain is a boat captain, hoping to rescue his husband who was caught at the centre of the time storm. They ride the clouds of this turbulent gas giant in an old fashioned skimmer of canvas and wood towards the origin of the storm. But the closer they get, the stranger and more disturbing the effects on their boat and themselves.

All in all, it’s easy to imagine the spirit of Terrance Dicks resting a hand on Foley’s shoulder, intoning “It’s great stuff, Timmy, but the problem, you see, is that we’ve already bought it off you once before…”

 

We’ve never heard the Ninth Doctor as emotionally honest and open in his Big Finish adventures as he is here

But crucially, each one also uses the scenario to trap the Time Lord in a confined space for a prolonged period where there’s little else to do but talk. And through that they reveal much of themselves than they’d normally be willing to. It means that whatever about the mechanics of the plot that enable these scenes, the two plays couldn’t be more different in spirit than the Doctor and Master themselves.

The prolonged journey fundamentally breaks apart the Doctor and River’s relationship before completely rebuilding it in a whole new form. For perhaps the first time in their intertwined lives the two are on an equal footing. Neither is smugly holding something over the other, and both are being completely honest about what they want and what they feel. And in the Doctor’s case, finally, at last, being honest about the psychological damage the Time War has done to him.

It makes for some electrifying scenes between Eccleston and Kingston. This would be high drama in the hands of any actors, but with such quality performers to live and breath it it’s, well, fantastic.

 

It’s the end but… you know what? He was fantastic.

After so long expressing his disinterest in exploring his Doctor’s trauma, Eccleston sounds eager for more in the accompanying interviews. But that only makes the range’s hiatus more painful. But, then, for over a decade of his ever doing Big Finish seemed an impossible dream. We shouldn’t give hope that he’ll return, recharged and re-energised some day.

So maybe we really shouldn’t say goodbye. Au revoir, Doctor.

 

 

Doctor Who: Star-Crossed. Cover by Caroline Tankersley (c) Big Finish Ninth Doctor Adventures. The Doctor looks to one side, holding out his arms protectively, sonic screwdriver in one hand. Beside him, River stands hands on hips, looking knowing. Behind them is a dangerous looking pink robot, Captain Grey, the TARDIS, and a supernova
Doctor Who: Star-Crossed. Cover by Caroline Tankersley (c) Big Finish

Doctor Who: Star-Crossed

The Doctor and River Song. Their lives are tangled, complex, intertwined.

But this Doctor doesn’t do domestics, and for once, River might have her work cut out. With time and space against them, these lovers are star-crossed in more ways than most.

 

Doctor Who – The Ninth Doctor Adventures: Star Crossed is now available to pre-order for just £29.99 (collector’s edition CD box set + download) or £22.99 (download only), exclusively here.

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