Two new short stories revisit Big Finish’s Doctor Who history with the return of Hex
Since the beginning the very nature of Big Finish’s monthly Doctor Who range has meant bouncing around within the show’s continuity. An adventure with the Seventh Doctor and Mel here, one with him and Peri there. Followed by one with Peri and the Sixth Doctor instead. Not just switching between the eras of all the Doctors, but also moving around within those eras to revisit different companions. Twenty years on even timelines Big Finish laid down between television episodes have their own gaps to pop back into. And that’s the approach taken by the two stories in this release, The Flying Dutchman and Displaced. Hex originally travelled with the Doctor and Ace in numerous releases between 2004’s The Harvest and 2014’s Signs and Wonders. But these stories drop us back near the very start of his time aboard the TARDIS.
The scripts signpost this clearly for any listeners who might be confused. If anything, they actually lay it on a bit thick. Both stories open in similar fashion, our terrific trio in the TARDIS, with Hex still slightly awestruck by everything and throwing in regular mentions of his recent career as a nurse. Sophie Aldred, similarly, does a fantastic job resurrecting ‘classic’ Ace. Here, the Perivale teen sounds like she just stepped off the set of Dragonfire in 1987. In fact, the two openings mirror each other so closely it’s presumably intentional, with Hex and Ace asking to go somewhere relaxing for once, followed by the Doctor pointing out some lovely place he took them to recently, only to be reminded of the horrible deaths almost suffered by Ace and Hex there. And, of course, their next landing turns out to be no better…
The Flying Dutchman
For the past few months Big Finish have concentrated shots of Doctor Who in shorter stories squeezed into normal releases. Between the one-part and two-part entries, we’ve gotten eight stories in just three Monthly Adventures. Up until now they’ve been quite masterful in crafting mixes of incident, mood and character perfect to their contracted length. The Flying Dutchman can’t quite make the same claim, unfortunately. It’s a story pivoting around a single conceit. It’s an irresistibly fun idea, and too good to spoil here. But it divides the story cleanly into an episode of pure setup, the grand reveal early in the second episode, followed by a protracted epilogue.
So in the first episode we’re introduced to the good ship Isabella and her crew. There’s Captain Marfleet, whose claim to the ship is one of nepotism and social class rather than natural ability, and cabin boy Archie with his hero worship of the kick ass Ace. Meanwhile First Mate Unsworth has his own doubts about his captain. We also learn how the trail of the Isabella through a massive storm is being dogged by an unearthly, glowing ship, crewed by wailing lost souls. A ship that can only be the infamous Flying Dutchman, doomed to never make landfall again, and an omen of death to any who see her. Throughout the sound design of high winds, rolling waves and creaking decks is top notch. You might almost share Hex’s sea sickness by the end.
Ultimately, the villains’ evil plan gets sillier the more the script dwells on it, but it’s in service of an undeniably fun idea
The explanation of what exactly the Flying Dutchman is (“Aliens!” guesses Ace; “Ghosts!” predicts Hex) and what it wants comes early in the second half. Once the nature and identity of the menace is unmasked, we get a lengthy dose of exposition that exposes the evil plan in almost forensic detail. Though perhaps less would have been more. As it is, the more the script battles to plug every potential plot hole in The Flying Dutchman’s narrative hull, the dafter and dafter that evil plan sounds.
Meanwhile the standard thankful goodbyes to the Doctor and co are present and correct. Characters expound on how the Doctor’s opened their eyes to a whole new world for a little too long here. With sexism, superstition, self-confidence, mercy and more getting the “Thanks to you, Doctor, I’ve learned…” treatment, by the third or fourth such scene you’d be forgiven for thinking the Isabella’s crew are about to create universal healthcare or free education next.
All the same, that notion at the heart of The Flying Dutchman, is so good. Yet it’s so fragile, Blogtor Who dares not even obliquely hint at it. All in all, it’s such fun that it’s well worth the oddities of pacing it creates around it.
The action is the second story in this release, Displaced is also a little skewed, but in a more effective way. Instead, it constantly picks up speed throughout its run time. And the terrors faced by the Doctor, Ace and Hex are locked into a cycle of escalation. It’s probably deliberate, then, that Katherine Armitage’s script starts off from as mundane a place as possible before racheting up the tension. “Oh,” says Ace as she emerges from the TARDIS to find herself in a perfectly ordinary looking living room.
At first glance it appears to simply be recently deserted but immediately the questions begin to add up. Everything is covered by a thick layer of dust, yet the kettle is freshly boiled. None of the windows and doors will open, and the logs kept by Harri the I Can’t Believe It’s Not Alexa home system say the family were sitting down to watch television only moments before our heroes arrived. So where are they now?
Displaced’s script is littered with clues which fit together to make a satisfyingly unforeseen solution
Displaced’s clever script actually uses the listener’s familiarity with Doctor Who plot staples and other SF tropes against them. You spend much of the runtime trying to second guess the plot. Throughout it offers up familiar beats that could point in a dozen contradictory directions. Are they trapped in a single moment of time? Has Harry the AI turned homicidal? Is the house really a house at all? Even as we start to get answers in the second half, the escalating sense of panic as the friends realize they’re running out of time, keeps up the sense of disorientation.
Like all the best mystery stories, even the answers give you a sense of jigsaw pieces being chucked at you by a laughing writer, who only unveils how they fit together at the very end, with an inevitable sense that there could never have been any other solution. It’s appropriate then that even the Seventh Doctor gets his moment where he finally shares what he knows with his companions and unveils the culprits… only to realize he’s dead, dead wrong.
Appropriately the Doctor and his companions land arrive in 2020… and immediately find themselves locked down in an apparently normal house while nerves fray
One bemusing aspect of Displaced is its setting – the year 2020. Quite by accident Big Finish have managed to produce a story about people going a little stir crazy while trapped in a normal seeming house. One that becomes an oppressive place to be once they realize they can’t leave.
On the other hand, while manned missions to Mars by the mid-1970s and a global world government by the late 1990s have always been a part of the show’s landscape, this is probably the fastest Doctor Who’s future history has been outpaced by reality. Only months after being recorded it already feels odd for Hex to not be speculating about Covid-19 as a possible reason for the family’s sealed up house. (Blogtor Who’s still hoping for some ADR lines from Graham in Revolution of the Daleks though – “Cheers, Doc. Getting us home just in time for lockdown? T’rrific. Thanks a bunch for that.”)
Together The Flying Dutchman and Displaced take us on a trip back into Big Finish’s own decades long history. They’re also a reminder of a breezier style of story telling with an emphasis on running around (albeit often in terror) with some old friends.
The Flying Dutchman by Gemma Arrowsmith
The Doctor, Ace and Hex find themselves on a seemingly deserted boat in the middle of the ocean. Eventually locating the crew, they discover that the men have been in hiding to avoid the attack of the legendary ghost ship The Flying Dutchman that they’ve recently glimpsed approaching through the fog. But ghosts don’t exist. Do they?
Displaced by Katharine Armitage
The Doctor, Ace and Hex arrive inside a mystery. An ordinary house where something extraordinary is happening. There are no occupants, the doors are sealed, and someone – or something – is attempting to communicate. And when the TARDIS locks them out, Ace and Hex suspect the Doctor of his usual tricks.
But the truth is even more disturbing…
Sylvester McCoy (The Doctor)
Sophie Aldred (Ace)
Philip Olivier (Hex)
Alexander Bean (The Kraw / George)
Carly Day (Archie / Anna)
Nigel Fairs (Curtis / Crewman)
Nicholas Khan (Alexander Marfleet)
Patience Tomlinson (Harri / Penny Tungate / The Matriarch)
Stephen Wight (Unsworth)
Script Editors Matt Fitton / John Dorney
Writers Katharine Armitage / Gemma Arrowsmith
Cover Artist by Simon Holub
Director Samuel Clemens
Executive Producer Jason Haigh-Ellery / Nicholas Briggs
Music Howard Carter
Producer Emma Haigh
Sound Design Howard Carter
Senior Producer David Richardson