The Eighth of March returns with two stories that never quite feel at home in this range

Big Finish’s strand dedicated to giving the women of Doctor Who, both behind the microphone and behind the scenes, a place to shine is back for a third International Women’s Day. Each iteration tweaks the format a little, with the strand never offering up the same concepts twice. This year, it’s not a showcase for lesser known female denizens of the wider whoniverse. Nor is it playing with mash-ups between women of Who that have never met before. Instead, this set, subtitled Strange Chemistry, instead gives us two more familiar slices of Doctor Who. There’s a Tom Baker story in four 25 minute parts, and a single hour long Missy story. There are good, sizeable roles for women in each. But it’s hard to shake the feeling of stories originally tagged for the Fourth Doctor Adventures and Missy ranges. Ones latterly, and slightly awkwardly, repurposed for this set.

 

A Ghost of Alchemy pits Leela and Marie Curie into a world of idiotic chauvinists, with even the Doctor in uncharacteristically sexist mood

It’s an impression which only grows over the duration of that first story, A Ghost of Alchemy. When it was first announced Tom Baker’s Doctor would appear alongside Louise Jameson’s Leela, many imagined some form of cameo. Perhaps accidentally dropping Leela into a sink or swim situation. A story where he only manages to find his way back to her after she’s won through on her own. As it is, Alchemy is very much a Fourth Doctor story, albeit one with substantial role for Leela.

The script by Leela actor herself, Louise Jameson, is perhaps seeking to compensate for that with some rather unflattering male characters. The Doctor himself isn’t immune, dismissing Leela’s unfamiliarity with the TARDIS tool box as typical of women drivers. He even expresses shock that Sevateem men and women took equal roles in hunting and cooking. President Warren G Harding is a supporting character in the action, too, and comes off even worse. In fairness, he’s generally considered, perhaps unfairly, to be one of the weakest and worst of all US Presidents. But his broad portrayal here is as utterly bewildered and dependant on his wife Florence for even the smallest decisions. It stretches belief that this version could ever have been elected in the first place.

 

Holly Jackson-Walters plays Marie Curie in A Ghost of Alchemy (c) Big Finish Eighth of March Strange Chemistry
Holly Jackson-Walters plays Marie Curie in Strange Chemistry: A Ghost of Alchemy (c) Big Finish

The moustache twirling, train track tying, villain Browman proves so inept battling him undermines rather than elevates Leela

Even our villain, the misogynistic scientist Browman, mixes equal parts smug arrogance and comical ineptitude. As a result, Leela’s inevitable eventual defeat of him doesn’t so much give you a satisfyingly cathartic victory as leave you wondering what took her so long. Browman’s scheme is to kill famed French scientist Marie Curie during her groundbreaking visit to America in 1921. He’s also plotting to steal the gram of radium she’s receiving for her experiments. His aim is to replace his own radium which he’s, well, dropped on the floor and lost.

Curie herself, played by Holly Jackson-Walters with a mix of passion and vulnerability, is easily the highlight of the story. Combining her fierce intelligence, anxiety attacks, determination, and insecurity in one believable characterisation makes for a challenging role. But despite that, and on top of that having to imagine her reactions to gun fights, kidnappings, train chases and more, Curie feels like a real, three dimensional person full of complexity rather than contradictions.

It grounds a story that otherwise pushes the listener’s powers of disbelief beyond the typical pure historical. Browman invades the White House and fires a gun in the direction of the President of the United States, but nobody but our heroes are very concerned about hunting him down afterward. The Doctor’s scarf performs such Herculean tasks you half expect a cheeky explanation involving wool from dwarf star sheep. The Doctor himself isn’t far behind, with the action packed climax leaving Baker so yelled out that hopefully there’s a hive’s worth of honey and a whole grove of lemons to restore that iconic bass to full working order before his next adventure.

 

Fairies at the Bottom of the Garden is built around a brilliant stroke of genius – Missy being one of young Amy Pond’s psychiatrists

Fairies at the Bottom of the Garden features an irresistible idea at its core. What if one of the four psychiatrists treating the young Amy Pond was Missy? It’s such a good concept, in fact, that it’s a shame Karissa Hamilon-Bannis’ script doesn’t spend more time in those sessions on the couch. Instead, after that wonderfully playful first meeting, the story deals mostly with Missy’s interest in the crack in Amy’s wall. More specifically, in how to turn the most recent aliens its deposited at Chez Pond to her own advantage. Along the way she outmatches a team of pursuing assassins, recruits a new assistant, and attempts to turn Amy to the dark side. All, naturally, in the best possible taste.

With Karen Gillan currently painted blue and saving the galaxy in Hollywood, it’s the original Amelia, Caitlin Blackwood who faces off with Michelle Gomez’ malevolent Time Lady. It’s a credit to Blackwood that she’s more than holds her own opposite her. Especially as the bolshy Amelia is determined to give as good as she gets, barb for barb. It helps too that Blackwood’s voice is both very recognizable as the little girl who shared fish fingers and custard with Matt Smith, and, at twenty-two, coloured with much of the same sardonic edge Gillan brought to the role.

 

Caitlin Blackwood returns as the young Amy Pond for Faeries at the Bottom of the Garden (c) Big Finish Doctor Who Eighth of March Strange Chemistry
Caitlin Blackwood returns as the young Amy Pond for Strange Chemistry: Faeries at the Bottom of the Garden (c) Big Finish

Gomez’ silk draped dagger of a voice is as much a joy to listen to as ever

The story never quite resolves the question of how to generate a sense of danger or drama.  The Time Lady’s attempts to convince the teenager that the Doctor is a malevolent force seem half-hearted and the eponymous fairies, though potentially lethal, never feel like a real threat. Fairies is at its most potent when dealing with Amy’s growing reputation as a disruptive, even violent, element at school. Her deep unhappiness about her life of missing jigsaw pieces boils over from mere backstory on TV to something more personal and real here. Ultimately the addition of more traditional alien creatures and mysteries feel unnecessary. A story contained entirely within Missy’s office as she listens to Amy’s problems across multiple sessions and steers her anger in destructive ways might have been a more compelling use of the characters.

Still, any time spent in the company of Michelle Gomez’ silk draped dagger of a voice is a good time. And as a proof of concept for more Caitlin Blackwood led adventures for Amy it makes a convincing case.

By Strange Chemistry’s end, you may not have shaken off that sense of it being assembled from spare parts. Ones that would have been the second or third best stories in other ranges’ sets. Thematically, between Leela being atypically helpless, and Amy sitting around spending her life waiting for a man, they’re an odd fit for the Eighth of March. And it’s certainly about the only time you’ll ever hear Blogtor saying something could have been improved by having a bit less Tom Baker in it. But it’s still an amiable way to spend a few hours, with some of Who’s most charismatic actors.

 

The Eighth of March: Strange Chemistry. Cover by Caroline Tankersley. Doctor Who Missy Amy Pond Fourth Doctor Tom Baker Leela Marie Curie (c) Big Finish
The Eighth of March: Strange Chemistry. Cover by Caroline Tankersley (c) Big Finish

The Eighth of March: Strange Chemistry

The Worlds of Doctor Who – The Eighth of March: Strange Chemistry is now available to own for just £19.99 (collector’s edition CD box set + download) or £16.99 (download only).

Big Finish listeners can catch up on the first two box sets of The Eighth of March in a bundle for just £40 (download only).

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