Big Finish has returned with another installment in their Classic Doctors, New Monsters range. This time featuring the Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, and Eighth Doctors, Classic Doctors, New Monsters (Volume 2) features four stand-alone stories with the Doctors facing the Vashta Nerada, the Racnoss, and the Carrionites. What’s unique about this box set is that the Fourth Doctor story and the Eighth Doctor story are loosely linked, both featuring the Vashta Nerada as villains. This is a clever idea, especially bookending the set with these two stories, and they prove to be my favorite stories of the bunch, not to suggest that any of the stories are bad. On the contrary, I really enjoyed all of them and it saddens me that Big Finish sees this as being the last of these box sets for the imminent future. (Spoilers ahead)
Night of the Vashta Nerada (by John Dorney)
Oh man, this was every bit as good as I’d hoped it would be. Like the Weeping Angels, the Vashta Nerada don’t quite work as well on audio as they do on TV, but it was okay because the writing and performances more than made up for that. From the Big Finish website: “Funworld was set to be the happiest planet in the galaxy. A planet of joy, of euphoria, of laughter and delight. Except construction was marred by reports of a predator and then, a few days before opening, all communication ceased. Owner Georgia Donnelly (Lorelei King) is desperate to open the resort and has hired Amanda Steele’s (Pam Ferris) crew to find out what happened on the planet. They’re the best. But even they might not be up to the task. Joined by the Doctor and being picked off one by one, they slowly start to realize that something terrifying lurks in the shadows.” There is something utterly superb about hearing Tom Baker say the words “Vashta Nerada”. I can’t tell you why it’s so pleasurable, but it is. He was the perfect Classic Doctor to pair with this monster as it feels perfectly like something he’d have faced during the gothic era of his run. And, best of all, the writing of the story just really works. As always, John Dorney hits it out of the park.
Dorney portrays the Vashta Nerada as the natural predators that they are. They’re not really bad guys or monsters or anything, they just do what they can to survive and only attack when humanity provokes them. He also made the very clever decision of having one of the characters, Phelan (Emma Lowndes), be psychic so that she can be the conduit with which the Vashta Nerada talked to the main characters. It’s as effective as when the Weeping Angels use a human they’ve killed as a way to communicate. It especially works via audio since we can’t see the shadows that the Vashta Nerada are in, so having them talk through Phelan helps keep them intimidating. The episode itself is tense, suspenseful, well written, and extremely well acted. Tom Baker shines in the episode, as he often does. Pam Farris as Amanda Steele and Lorelai King as Georgia Donnelly both do a great job at making their characters vastly unlikable, though Farris’ Steele is given a bit of a heroic character arc, which was really nice. All in all, this was a fantastic way to open the box set and easily one of my favorite Fourth Doctor stories (that I’ve seen/heard/read – and I haven’t seen a whole lot of them). (5 out of 5 wands)
Empire of the Racnoss (by Scott Handcock)
I’m still not a particularly big fan of the Racnoss as characters/villains, but I will admit that they were used rather ingeniously here. From the Big Finish website: “When a distress call rips the TARDIS from the Vortex, dragging it back through time, it arrives in the midst of a conflict between Gallifrey and an ancient foe. The Doctor, as ever, wants to help but in returning a wounded combatant home, he becomes further and further entangled in a web of deceit and recrimination. A web spun by an eight-legged Empress (Adjoa Adhoh) and her minions… The Empire of the Racnoss is at war, and wherever he stands, the Doctor is on the wrong side.” I found the Racnoss annoying in their first appearance in The Runaway Bride and I find them annoying here, too. The way they speak just grates on my nerves. It’s so over the top and it gets real old real fast. But, once you get past that, they were used really well in the episode.
I liked the idea of the Racnoss having, essentially, a civil war between the Emperor (Nigel Planer) and the Empress. I also thought the idea was executed really well, too. At no point is the listener ever really confident in who the “good” guy and the “bad” guy are. There are so many twists and turns and shades of gray in the episode that it makes for a really compelling listen. It’s nice that it’s set during Gallifrey’s war with the Racnoss empire, as well, as it gives us a glimpse at what the Fifth Doctor is like during a war. Since the Fifth Doctor really can’t have any part in the Time War, this is probably the closest thing we’ll get, and it’s a really really good glimpse. Peter Davison plays this darker, angrier Doctor very well and he definitely shines in the episode. The supporting cast does a perfectly good job, but there aren’t really any standout performances, nor did there need to be. Adjoa Adhoh does a great job at replicating the voice of the Racnoss Empress so she sounds very similar to Sarah Parish, the actress who played the Empress in The Runaway Bride. Unfortunately, I still find the voice used for the character to be annoying in general, but Parish did do a good job with it nonetheless. The episode itself is well written and well paced and I enjoyed it quite a bit. (4 out of 5 wands)
The Carrionite Curse (by Simon Guerrier)
There’s a lot to like about this episode, and all of those positive things add up to an extremely entertaining story. Colin Baker’s Doctor was the perfect Doctor to give this story to, too, as his love for words serves as a great foil for the Carrionites. From the Big Finish website: “Katy Bell (Maya Sondhi) returns to her Midlands home to find strange goings-on at the buskers fair. A witch trial in the 1980s. A bonfire ready to be lit… Luckily, a colorful visitor is already investigating, and the local vicar, Katy’s dad, is versed in tales of the macabre. Terrifying forces are on the loose, and the town hall holds a secret. There is black magic in the Black Country, and the Doctor has the name of his enemy on the tip of his tongue… Something wicked this way comes.” It’s really hard for me to talk about my favorite aspects of this story without really spoiling a fun twist. Let’s just say that I’d 100% recommend that you rewatch the Carrionites’ first (and only) appearance on the TV Show, The Shakespeare Code, either directly before or directly after listening to this story. It enriches the experience, for sure.
So, avoiding spoilers, I really like the overall feeling of this story. I love when Doctor Who explores a more mystical side. The Doctor is so steadfast in his disbelief of anything supernatural (ghosts, magic, etc) and it almost always comes back around to bite him, and that’s definitely the case with this episode as he underestimates the Carrionites at every turn. Starting the episode off with a witch trial in the 1980s was a really smart and easy way to immediately set the tone for the story. It makes me want to immediately go and finish the First Doctor book, The Witch Hunters, which features the First Doctor, Susan, Barbara, and Ian during the Salem Witch Trials. I love the history of witchcraft throughout the world and I love when Doctor Who interacts with that history, and this episode does a really clever job with it. Colin Baker is absolutely excellent in the episode, as is Maya Sondhi (as Katy Bell). Sondhi is able to portray Katy with that perfect x-factor that makes for a good companion, and her performance really makes you wish she’d be a permanent companion for the Sixth Doctor. She’s a great side character, and definitely a highlight of the episode. The writing was superb; the pacing and general plotting of the episode were excellent, as was Guerrier’s usage of words when the Doctor fought against the Carrionites. It’s just an overall enjoyable episode. (4.5 out of 5 wands)
Day of the Vashta Nerada (by Matt Fitton)
This was the episode of the box set that I was most eager to listen to. It features several of my favorite things: The Eighth Doctor, the Time War, and the Vashta Nerada. So, naturally, I was extremely pumped when it came time to listen to the episode. Thankfully, it lived up to my (very high) expectations. From the Big Finish website: “As the Time War rages, Cardinal Ollistra (Jacqueline Pearce) of Gallifrey seeks to create ever more dangerous weapons to deploy against the enemy. When the Doctor stumbles across Synthesis Station, he discovers that the Time Lords have sponsored a project to weaponise already-lethal creatures. But in doing so, Eva Morrison and her team have unwittingly used a colony of Vashta Nerada with a very unfortunate history of humanoid contact. The Doctor finds himself leading a desperate race for survival, in which the shadows may be the least of their worries…” If I had one issue with the episode, it’s that I felt like it was too short. I mean, everything that needed to be explained was explained, but I’d have just liked a little more time to really build up the atmosphere. It’s the shortest episode of the box set, so even just ten more minutes would’ve been enough.
That being said, it was still an excellent episode. The idea of weaponizing the Vashta Nerada for the Time War was an excellent one and really helped show just how awful the Time Lords acted during the Time War. I love how it loosely tied in with the other Vashta Nerada story in this box set (this colony of Vashta Nerada is descended from the same Vashta Nerada that were in Night of the Vashta Nerada). It was a nice way to make that connection between the episodes and show the evolution of the Vashta Nerada. The other thing I really liked is that it feels like this episode is really a prequel to the Eighth Doctor’s upcoming Time War series. The way it ends feels like it sets up a lot of the themes that that series will, presumably, explore. Granted, I’m making a lot of assumptions, but it just feels like that’s what it’s doing, and if I’m right, it did it very well. I really loved this episode. It’s my favorite of the set, which doesn’t say a whole lot since all of the episodes were really rather good. I just love the Eighth Doctor and I love how this episode was structured, paced, and resolved. It was just great. (5 out of 5 wands)
So, is volume two of the Classic Doctors, New Monsters series good? God, yes. It’s even better than the first volume was, and the first volume was pretty good. This one just really upped the game. They learned from the mistakes that were made in the first box set and improved on them in every way. Each Doctor was perfectly represented in their respective stories, the monsters were accurately written and portrayed, and the episodes themselves were just really good ones. All of the supporting actors delivered very strong performances, as did the four Doctors themselves. The sound design was superb and Barany Edwards’ direction was spot on. I can’t recommend this set enough. It’s a great jumping-on point for anybody new to the Big Finish line of Doctor Who audios, or anybody new to any of the classic Doctors in general. A+, Big Finish. This was truly spectacular.
(Five out of five wands)