The anthology Time Apart offers up a quartet of historicals, successfully capturing four distinct Doctor Who sub-genres
It’s time for the Big Finish main range’s annual anthology. This time it’s the Fifth Doctor who contends with four one part short stories, rather than the typical four-parter. And it falls rather neatly into the Doctor’s recent separation from his companions Nyssa, Tegan and Marc. Peter Davison’s incarnation sets down in four separate parts of history from the middle ages to the Cold War. And, unencumbered by companions, he swiftly gets to the heart of adventures covering the full scope of Doctor Who historical styles.
The first two stories, Ghost Station and The Bridge Master, share a common thread of entities which come into existence by leeching off people’s memories, at the expense of draining the original’s life force. That this echoes the recent Torchwood release Iceberg only underlines the difference between the two shows. There the nameless creatures cried crocodile tears and begged for sympathy and forgiveness even as they continued to kill. And the resolution was as ruthless and unsympathetic as you’d except at the hands of Torchwood. But in Ghost Station, the Doctor shows genuine empathy for the creature which kills not out of choice, but without even conscious thought.
If the stories in Time Apart share a common thread, it’s the Fifth Doctor’s instinct for kindness
The theme of compassion and forgiveness also figures strongly in The Bridge Master. Here the Doctor is touchingly understanding of Agatha, his substitute companion for the story. The woman who also happens to have marked the Doctor for death to save her son. Indeed, in all four stories the Doctor refuses to be judgemental but instead strives for kindness, above all else.
The second half of the quartet continues the theme in various ways. What Lies Down Under features that old Doctor Who chestnut – the Doctor attempting a negotiation between humanity and an alien species to secure peaceful co-existence. The human side of the equation in this case being made up of convicts being transported to Australia. Meanwhile, the sentient alien fish they’ve been fetching out of the ocean and into their frying pans (oops) are also exiles. The parallel means that the importance of second chances and forgiveness looms large. Finally, with improbable shades of film The Dark Knight, final story The Dancing Plague rests on the Doctor putting his ego aside to be not the hero people deserve, but the villain they need.
Despite the common thread Big Finish’s selection of tales couldn’t be more different in terms of tone and setting. Ghost Station, by Steve Lyons, brings the Fifth Doctor to his home ground of the 1980s. But it’s an aspect of the decade that would have been too close to address directly the Doctor Who of 1983. Because it’s East Berlin and even deep under the Berlin Wall paranoia reigns. East German soldiers guard the ghost stations dotting the train tunnels linking West Berlin to West Germany, watchful for would be defectors who might flag down a train or escape along the tunnels.
The four stories accurately hit the target with different styles of Doctor Who historical, from creeping terror to rattling adventure
Never leaving the claustrophobic semi-darkness of the ghost station, it’s a fine addition to a particular sub-genre of ghost stories. Ghost Station is built more on tension and character than an abundance of plot. It succeeds in generating a chill to successfully penetrate even when listening during the last gasp of sunshine before Autumn.
Jac Rayner’s script for The Bridge Master, in contrast, pulls on its white cricketing trainers to rattle along at a tremendous rate. It fits in enough incident for a drama twice its length. And it takes the Doctor to a medieval village where he faces a threat more familiar from J-Horror movies. Under a curse to die in seven days’ time, his shade doomed to guard a newly built bridge, the Doctor and Agatha race around the surrounding countryside investigating the mystery and the previous handiwork of the sinister Bridge Master.
Naturally enough, this being Doctor Who, the secrets behind the cursed bridges has a strictly science fiction rationale. Even if, as usual, the effects are probably indistinguishable from the supernatural. Ultimately, the Doctor’s dispensing of justice in this howdunnit (the cast’s too small to be a whodunnit, after all) is of the type more frequently seen being dealt out by the Seventh or the Tenth on television. But Peter Davison plays the moment with such light sincerity that it fits his incarnation perfectly.
What Lurks Down Under, sadly the only Big Finish script from the late Tommy Donbavand, is a lighter affair in a more comic mode
With his script for What Lurks Down Under, the late, and much missed, Tommy Donbavand (to whom Big Finish dedicate this release) strikes another shift of tone. Plot wise, it’s a relatively slight affair. The Doctor arrives upon the sailing ship Lady Juliana becalmed in the Indian Ocean to find almost everyone fallen ill. He then sorts out who had fish for dinner, and then assists in making Humanity’s apologies to the fish. But that just leaves Donbavand more room for his considerable wit, with gags packed three layers deep. In particular, the Doctor’s easy and immediate friendship with real life historical figure Mary Wade provides plenty of opportunity for him to point out the ridiculousness of common Who tropes. For instance, when Mary queries his assumption he’s being falsely accused as soon as he arrives, he sighs “it happens.”
The Dancing Plague, by Kate Thorman is the only entry here that has difficulty adjusting to its short running time. Plunging the Doctor into the Dancing Plague of Strasbourg in 1518, it’s stripped down a little too much. As a result, despite being set over the course of months, not a lot happens. Along with Margareta, an academic woman centuries ahead of her time, he tries to discover the sinister force compelling a growing number of entranced peasants to dance themselves to exhaustion. And tries. And tries some more. It’s a story that marks time with the everyone’s growing frustration with the Doctor’s failure to make any progress. It’s in service of an ending that proves a clever subversion of the listener’s expectations, but which would have benefited from a more convincing red herring.
Time Apart works wonders with its small cast creating four distinct and persuasive worlds and sets of characters
One unqualified triumph of Time Apart is how Big Finish and director Jamie Anderson utilize the same small cast across four separate groups of characters. Kate Harbour deserves particular praise for playing both Agatha and Margareta as well as a giant fish. But Wayne Forester isn’t far behind, also doing triple duty and running the full Doctor Who guest star gauntlet across the set. He’s variously a villain, a comically obtuse foil, and an arrogant bureaucrat objecting to the Doctor’s help. Peter Davison shines too, in a rare acting challenge. As he points out in the accompanying interview, every Big Finish audio remixes the elements of the Fifth Doctor’s character. Sometimes funnier, sometimes more downbeat, sometimes more earnest or passionate. But almost never has he been called upon to move from one version of his Doctor to another and then another within a single day’s recording.
Time Apart represents a change of pace that illustrates how perfectly the essentials of the Doctor Who formula can be recreated in miniature. A break from the wider drama of the Fifth Doctor’s life, it hits four distinct moods in two hours, and lands them all. As such it’s the perfect sampler mix-tape of the Fifth Doctor era.
Doctor Who: Time Apart
Ghost Station by Steve Lyons
Deep beneath the streets of East Berlin, Peter Meier patrols the border in an old underground station. But when the TARDIS materialises nearby, Peter realises he is far from alone.
The Bridge Master by Jacqueline Rayner
When the Doctor’s shadow is sacrificed by villagers, he brushes it off as medieval superstition – until he begins to grow weak. Can he uncover the truth behind the bridge master’s curse before it’s too late?
What Lurks Down Under by Tommy Donbavand
On the waves of the Indian Ocean, all the prisoners aboard the Lady Juliana have fallen into a trance… except a single girl. Mary Wade desperately needs a doctor – and only one will help her.
The Dancing Plague by Kate Thorman
Arriving in Strasbourg at the height of the Dancing Plague, the Doctor finds himself thrust into a world of paranoia. Can he bring peace to a city at odds with its own people?
Peter Davison (The Doctor)
Laura Aikman (Mary Wade)
Timothy Blore (Peter Meier / Lucas)
Wayne Forester (Clement / Dr Richard Alley / Gerhardt)
Kate Harbour (Agatha / Teuthis / Margareta)
Producer Alfie Shaw Scott Handcock
Writers Jacqueline Rayner / Kate Thorman / Tommy Donbavand / Steve Lyons
Cover Art Tom Webster
Director Jamie Anderson
Executive Producers Jason Haigh-Ellery Nicholas Briggs
Music Wilfredo Acosta
Script Editor Scott Handcock
Sound Design Wilfredo Acosta
Senior Producer David Richardson