It’s Around the World in 365 Days as The Year of Martha Jones finally becomes a reality
Martha Jones is back! And it’s about time! In fact, it’s specially about a year. The stars and recording schedules have finally aligned and Freema Agyeman has found the time between saving patients in medical drama New Amsterdam to save the world for Big Finish. The three stories in this boxset explore the year Martha Jones spent laying the groundwork for the Master’s defeat. It’s a circumnavigation of the globe in little more than a blink of an eye on television. Everything here takes place between the Doctor Who episodes The Sound of Drums and Last of the Time Lords. But they’re stories now ready to be told. Literally.
Though, in the final result, The Year of Martha Jones tells only a sliver of that epic journey worthy of Phileas Fogg. It doesn’t draw on the full 365 day scope of her quest around the planet. Instead, all three episodes here take place over a matter of weeks as Martha walks across the American Midwest. Although the accompanying interviews explain that the writing team wanted to avoid any risk of contradicting the existing short story collection set during Martha’s travels in Asia it does seem like a missed opportunity.
Offering up only a thin slice of time near the end of Martha’s journey, it nevertheless feels like a beginning
Big Finish setting these first audio stories during the final leg of the odyssey causes some other minor issues too. Both Martha and the other characters she meets all along the way carry a sense of still adapting. They’re downtrodden and downbeat, certainly. However, few feel like they’ve endured the horror of almost a year in a labour camp, losing family and friends. While Martha herself is still feeling her way through which sorts of tales of the Doctor work, or don’t work. And she’s struggling to build her own self-confidence as well. And normal life isn’t such a distant memory that she can’t turn her nose up at one of the last cups of coffee in America. The result is a narrative that feels better suited to a setting during her early travels across Europe.
However, putting that slight consistency aside there’s still much to enjoy in these three strong tales of Martha finding her feet without the Doctor. Opening story The Last Diner kicks off by establishing the day to day pattern of Martha’s life. Each night people sneak out through the wire of the camps and meet with Martha at a derelict roadside diner. There she regales them with stories of her travels with the Doctor as she tries to persuade them to never give up hope.
After establishing the day to day reality of Martha’s quest, the narrative begins to build towards something more intriguing
With the pattern of Martha’s ‘new normal’ laid out, middle installment Silver Medal moves beyond it. Martha, her mother Francine (Adjoa Andoh) and their friend Holly (Serin Ibrahim) head to the “biggest and best” resistance camp in North America. Once there they discover an audacious plan to hit back against the Toclafane. And the climactic Deceived brings all the strands of the recurring subplots together as Martha finds herself playing hide and seek in the casinos and hotels of Las Vegas. The ruthless collaborator Miss Beecham and her own personal vanguard of Toclafane have finally found her…
It’s a smart tactic to take in structuring the arc. Martha’s stories are the single most important aspect of her journey. But simply listening to her first hand narration of these offscreen adventures would risk being more suitable to the Companion Chronicles format. Indeed, at times The Last Diner edges in that direction. Its topically Don’t Look Up style tale features the pair on a planet in denial about an imminent comet collision. Though it features a remarkably un-Doctor Who resolution, that did leave Blogtor wondering what moral Martha was imparting. But Martha’s stories themselves move progressively further from centre stage as the box set continues and her immediate problems get worse.
The unifying theme of the set is Martha dealing with doubts from within and without. It’s a motif expressed most significantly by that arrival of one Francine Jones on the scene early in The Last Diner. But is it Martha’s real mum? Across the three stories, the script invites the listener to speculate on the truth of whether Francine has really escaped from the Valiant to reunite with her daughter.
One of the greater mysteries linking the three stories in The Year of Martha Jones is how far the wanderer can trust her new companions… even her mother
One of the hints, or perhaps red herrings, is Francine’s status as a Doubting Thomas to Martha’s loyal apostle. She’s constantly pointing out supposed plot holes, and giving her own unflattering view of the Doctor to anyone who’ll listen. In other words, generally undermining her daughter at every step. But is that the mission that she’s on? Or just Francine doing what Francine does best – annoying the hell out of her daughter? Like the rest of the Jones ladies, Adjoa Andoh has enjoyed a stratospheric career since 2007. But she returns here to perfectly recapture Francine’s difficult mix of spiky thorn-like scepticism and the deeply real flower of her love for her family those thorns protect. All while adding an appropriate weariness to a version of Francine that’s been through so much.
Martha’s old medical school friend Holly also shows up in America with highly convenient timing to be another suspect for potential betrayal. Is her supportive cheerleading for Martha, with a winning performance by Serin Ibrihim, just a cover for some darker purpose? And why is she quite so interested in getting her old friend to confide the secret objective behind her mission?
The Doctor’s loyalest companion faces a succession of formidable women, not least of which her own mother
Indeed, by accident or design each episode here features women with strong personalities who refuse to let Martha sway them. In The Last Diner it’s the diner’s unofficial proprietor Karen (Marina Sirtis) who hmms and tuts her way through Martha’s story. In true Karen style, even now she thinks the CIA orchestrated events like those in Doomsday as psych-ops operations. She doesn’t quite get to the point of talking about the heat of burning jet fuel and the melting point of girders, but she’s not far off. It’s a part which, despite her high billing on the cover, doesn’t give the Star Trek: The Next Generation legend as much to do as it might. But the choice of role seems chiefly the result of mapping Sirtis’ travel itinerary onto Big Finish’s recording schedule. So it’s perhaps most important in opening the door for future partnerships with her.
In Silver Medal Martha has to contend with alpha soccer mom Jessie (Lorelei King) the leader of the Hope resistance camp. Jessie has a very specific vision for keeping her interpretation of the American Dream alive. And she isn’t impressed by wandering legend Martha Jones showing up to preach love and cooperation.
Julie Graham’s sinister Miss Beecham provides a wonderfully patronising and ruthless nemesis for Martha in finale Deceived
And in finale Deceived, the Doctor’s companion is locked in battle with one of the Master’s black suited acolytes Miss Beecham (Julie Graham). Graham gives a wonderfully witty performance as the condescending and ambitious Beecham. Scenes revealing the Master’s selection process is cribbed straight from The Apprentice are a particular delight. Individually, all three characters are compelling enough, especially Beecham, though all three in succession does leave the listener feeling sorry for Martha. All in all, she seems to be having a very bad few weeks in the inspiration and persuasion game.
Beecham’s schemes against Martha are only slowly revealed, and are satisfyingly devious once brought into the light, making them the strongest aspect of The Year of Martha Jones. She transpires to be much more dangerous than any mere henchwoman. Her motivations for this particular course of action, once unveiled, feel satisfyingly believable too. And despite the nature of this boxset meaning we know the Jonses make it out alive, and that even the fates of anyone else will ultimately be undone in Last of the Time Lords, Deceived has a real sense of danger and menace. The Toclafane remain one of Russell T Davies’ greatest creations. And here, given time to shine away from the Master and trill and purr and pout their way through their hunt for Martha in their toddler voices, they’re an exceptionally unsettling monster.
The set leaves plenty of scope for more adventures for Martha, so here’s hoping the stars of the Big Finish recording zodiac align again
The Year of Martha Jones ultimately barely scratches the surface of Martha’s experiences. Hopefully, a second volume will emerge once the stars and Big Finish calendars align once more. And with more focus on the thrills and dangers of life under the Master this could evolve into something very special indeed. Perhaps, dare we hope, even with an appearance by the man himself…