The Doctor and Mel welcome aboard new friend Hebe for her maiden voyage into the depths of three watery adventures
It’s been a busy year for Colin Baker, and one that’s seen him wearing many hats. In the new Doctor of War series he plays ‘the Warrior,’ an alternate version of the Doctor fighting a very different Time War. And in the final volume of Stranded he took over as a new version of the Curator. One who is either a successor of Tom Baker’s, the result of changes in the timeline, or just symbolic of some gift of the Curator to slide between incarnations at will. (To be honest, it was a little confusing.) But now he’s back in the rainbow explosion of a frock coat we know so well. Yes, the Sixth Doctor is back for three more adventures. And in Water Worlds he’s got a new friend in the form of Ruth Madeley’s Hebe Harrison.
Water Worlds works hard (and mostly succeeds) at balancing acknowledging Hebe’s wheelchair use against too many ‘teachable moments’
Ruth Madeley is, by any definition, is a bit of a casting coup for Big Finish. The BAFTA nominated actor will be most familiar to Doctor Who fans from Russell T Davies’ near future drama Years and Years. You know, the one predicting Russia would invade Ukraine and that the US Supreme Court would overturn abortion rights. As Hebe, she’s a marine biologist trying to escape a base under siege (and, really is there any other kind?) when the Doctor and Mel arrive, answering a mysterious summons. She’s also, notably, the first wheelchair user to come aboard the TARDIS.
Water Worlds works hard to strike a balance between acknowledging Hebe’s unique status and avoiding down-the-lens sermonising. It’s not always totally successful, though it settles down as the set goes on. This aspect of the set is at its best when exploring the impact of Hebe’s life experiences so far on how she views the unusual challenges of life in the TARDIS. Less successful is when Hebe is condescending to the Doctor and Mel, making (strangely unchallenged) assumptions about them. But then, those pair have more knowledge of being manhandled, imprisoned, and possessed than the average listener. So perhaps such arguments might have just blunted the central point the script is making.
The Rotting Deep is straight up survival horror with something in the darkness picking off the inhabitants of a decommissioned oil rig one by one
As for the stories themselves, The Rotting Deep kicks off the action with an apt allusion to The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. “The very deep did rot: O Christ! That ever this should be! Yea, slimy things did crawl with legs. Upon the slimy sea,” goes Coldridge’s epic poem and it’s a reasonable summing up of the action here. A distress call brings the TARDIS to an old oil rig under siege by wild life gone, well… wild. Homicidal gulls (no such thing as ‘seagulls’ according to a marine biologist, though a linguist might disagree) attack from above. Meanwhile, sea stars (no such thing as ‘starfish’ either, apparently) and octopi attack from below. And in between a rum mix of survivors hope for rescue.
There’s Hebe, of course, who’s there to assess removing the decommissioned rig. She’s concerned it would do more harm than good now a reef has established itself around the rig’s concrete feet. But among the others there’s also a rather odd strand of environmentalist who wants the rig ripped out regardless of the damage to the local sealife, a celebrity host of sensationalist ‘Shark Week’ style documentaries, and A.M. the cook (James Smillie doing his best Private Frazer impression as he predicts doom an’ gloom an’ death for all, and probably the best thing in The Rotting Deep.)
The focus on introducing Hebe as a fully rounded character pushes plot to one side for a rather straightforward runaround
Perhaps in deference to the need to firmly establish Hebe as a personality, there’s not an awful lot of plot to The Rotting Deep beyond that. Various sea creatures feature in a number of tense and gripping attack scenes. Whatever is at work on the rig steadily picks off the people aboard one by one. And then the Doctor identifies both the cause and the solution. There are a shadows of what may have been a more complex script remaining. Trails of strange, unidentifiable slime and sabotaged food supplies, come to naught in the final version. While some of the deaths are unexplained, people just walking into the darkness, never to be seen again. But as a piece of straight forward survivalist horror it’s an extremely effective delivery mechanism for getting Hebe into the TARDIS.
The Tides of the Moon brings our trio back four billion years to our own moon as it faces total destruction
Joshua Pruett’s The Tides of the Moon rather goes to town with the 2020 discovery of isolated water molecules trapped in rock samples retrieved from Earth’s moon. It takes the TARDIS four billion years back in time to imagine a moon almost entirely covered in ocean. A moon that’s home to the sophisticated alien civilisation of the Gilleans. Soon, the Doctor, Hebe and Mel find themselves in a distinctly Hartnell era shaped plot. With the TARDIS engines subject to some mysterious local interference, and the Gillean city, the only land available, forbidden to outsiders, the friends are stuck between a rock and a wet place. Worse, moonquakes are becoming increasingly frequent and violent, threatening the Moon’s total destruction. Of course, in the best traditions of Krypton, the Clutchfather is stubbornly refusing to listen to his head scientist’s warnings.
The central idea of immediately bringing Hebe on a tour of spectacular water worlds in a fine one. And, in retrospect, it underlines the strangeness of the 80s Doctors picking up people with very particular interests, like botany, computing, or mathematics (though not telebiogenesis) and that rarely, if ever, being a factor in where they might like to visit. But Hebe’s delight at having a whole new world of water to explore is infectious.
Hebe learns some valuable lessons vital for any TARDIS traveller and events test her in ways she didn’t expect
The Tides of the Moon also begins the process of softening some of Hebe’s more brusque and sarcastic edges. She wheels into the Gillean city like she owns the place and sees the inhabitants primarily as scientific curiosities. But that initial arrogance forces a harsh lesson. Though it’s true that rather than just grumbling, Mel could have actually said out loud how in her experience the penalty for entering forbidden cities, touching forbidden objects and, really, just about anything forbidden is always, always, death. Though you may find yourself pondering about the Gilleans having harsh laws about strangers at all, when they’re their world’s sole inhabitants.
Hebe’s character growth, like her introduction, results in a balancing act with the other needs of the plot. It’s a more intricate affair this time, with bipedal shark-creatures the Sheega invading the city each night, the missing chapters in the official Gillean history, and that countdown to destruction. But both the mystery, and the intertwined solutions, fall into pretty familiar patterns, freeing up the listener’s mental bandwidth to focus on Hebe’s reactions to it all, and the slowly growing trust and friendship between her and Mel.
Final story Maelstrom is the first indicator of what future adventures with Hebe as an integrated member of Team TARDIS might be like
Water Worlds concludes with Maelstrom. It’s the point at which Hebe first feels properly assimilated into this new TARDIS dynamic. It’s the first entry to feel like a story with Hebe in it, rather than a story about Hebe. As such, it’s probably our first real indicator as to what further adventures for this trio will be like. Arriving on an alien planet whose waters cover almost the entire surface, the tide almost instantly cuts our heroes off from the TARDIS. Rescued, they’re brought to an old ship doomed to a never-ending version of Noah’s voyage. Veludia has drowned in a planetwide flood, the few survivors taking to giant boats. But it’s now been centuries with no sign of the tides receding, and this last surviving ark is nearing the point of breaking up.
Maelstrom features a post-apocalyptic water world worthy of, well, Waterworld, as the Doctor, Mel, and Hebe are pulled into the ethical quandaries of survival
Writer Jonathan Morris builds Maelstrom on a central moral conundrum. The Veludians use a ‘mind-drive’ to store hundreds of minds who share a handful of available bodies as and when their skills are needed. Their entire species facing the ultimate extinction. So how can they ignore the three new bodies coming aboard giving a chance of survival? Unfortunately, all sides of the debate seem to accept that the computer files at the heart of it qualify as ‘souls.’ And even the ethics of a renegade scientist’s experiments on the local sea life is considered through the prism of what it means for the people, not the animals, caught up in them.
Similarly, the Doctor’s attempts at a resolution to the crew’s problems will divide opinion. The story presents it as an act of compassion, allowing for some element of grace and acceptance. But it may be one of the most morally outrageous abuses the Time Lord has ever committed. Which will largely depend on the listener’s point of view, metaphysics wise.
Water Worlds focus on Hebe’s character development hints at a more structured version of the Sixth Doctor’s own softening in the future
Water Worlds is a successful introduction for the Sixth Doctor’s latest companion. Hebe is a difficult character to love straight away, but there’s plenty of potential on show in these three stories. Perhaps, echoing the original plan for ‘Ol Sixey himself, her rude shell is a deliberate first stage in her journey. And, if the Sixth Doctor’s adventures have told us anything, it’s that Big Finish, and especially Jac Rayner, are the masters of that.
Doctor Who: Water Worlds
The Sixth Doctor returns, and he’s thrown straight in at the deep end! Travelling the galaxy with Melanie ‘Mel’ Bush and their brand-new companion, marine biologist Hebe Harrison, there are wonders to see, dangers to face and plenty of peril beneath the waves.