REVIEW: “Doctor Who: The Eleventh Doctor Chronicles” from Big Finish Productions

bfp11thccd01_the_eleventh_doctor_chronicles_sq_cover_largeWhen it was announced that Big Finish Productions had been given the license to create new audio dramas featuring characters from the revived series of Doctor Who (in addition to the classic series license they already had), we all knew it was only a matter of time before they started doing new adventures with some of the Doctors from the new series. Unfortunately, with the exception of David Tennant (as the 10th Doctor), Big Finish has been unable to lure any of the new Doctors to do audio dramas yet. In their absence, Big Finish has still created new stories featuring those Doctors in the form of audiobook/audio drama hybrids, where an actor who can impersonate that Doctor performs the narration, the voice of the Doctor, and the voices of some other characters while a guest actor or two from the TV series comes in to provide their own voice. They did this first with the Nicholas Briggs led Ninth Doctor Chronicles, then a second time with the Jacob Dudman-led Tenth Doctor Chronicles, and most recently with another set led by Jacob Dudman, this time featuring the Eleventh Doctor. The Eleventh Doctor Chronicles features four stand-alone stories from parts of the Eleventh Doctor’s era. 

The Calendar Man by A.K. Benedict
This first story is a bit of a rough start for me, partially due to the fact that I’m just not a big fan of this hybridized audiobook/audio drama format. But more on that in a bit. This first story features the Doctor and Amy Pond and is (probably) set sometime during series 5 with Amy away from Rory. Answering a cry for help, the Doctor and Amy arrive on a misty colony world – but nobody thinks anything is wrong. Nobody, except for one young woman, hiding in shadows and scribbling in her notebook. Soon, Amy is on the trail of missing colonists, while the Doctor strides into the fog in search of a fairy-tale. But time is running out, and the Calendar Man is flicking through the pages of their lives…  

So, on a story level, this is a good story. The premise is really interesting and the execution is great. There’s some really good sound design throughout (especially since so much of this story revolves around time and memories, the usage of a ticking clock really works wonders). The problem I have with this story really stems from the format of this box set in general. Jacob Dudman does a truly fantastic Eleventh Doctor. He sounds so like Matt Smith that if you didn’t know any better, you could easily be fooled into thinking it is Matt Smith. He doesn’t, however, do a particularly good Amy Pond. His voice for Amy sounds very similar to the voice he used for the narration, which sorta encapsulates my problem with this concept. If you’re going to hire somebody to basically impersonate the various Doctors, then have them do it in a full audio drama, or at least have them do it in a way where they don’t have to be both the Doctor, the main companion, and the narrator. I understand that it’s down the fact that Big Finish couldn’t get Matt Smith and Karen Gillan to record any audios at this time (otherwise this would have been a full-fledged 11th Doctor boxset like the previous 10th Doctor ones we’ve gotten), but barring that, it might’ve been good if this whole set had just been Dudman doing the narration and the 11th Doctor while using companions (or new characters) that Big Finish could convince to do an audio (like Kazran, Dorium, or even River Song or Churchhill.) Dudman’s a great narrator and a great 11th Doctor, but his Amy Pond just drew me right out of the story and really made me aware that I was listening to what was, essentially, an enhanced audiobook rather than an audio drama in a way that some of the other stories in this set didn’t. It’s not his fault, nor is it AK Benedict’s fault. It’s not even the story’s fault. It’s just the concept of this set, and because of that concept and the inherent flaws with it, this story didn’t work as well for me as it otherwise would have, because it really is well written and well performed. (3.5 out of 5 wands)

The Top of the Trees by Simon Guerrier
This next story, however, worked a lot better for me precisely due to the fact that Dudman only had to portray the 11th Doctor, the narrator, and other minor roles while Danny Horn reprised his role as Kazran Sardick. This story is set during one of the (many) Christmas adventures that the Eleventh Doctor and Kazran had during A Christmas Carol and is set on a planet that really could never have been shown on screen due to the sheer ambitious nature of it, which is really exciting. On one of their annual jaunts, young Kazran Sardick and the Doctor find themselves in trouble when the TARDIS is tangled in the branches of a very strange, very large tree. They emerge into a habitat where myriad species fight for survival: an ecosystem of deadly flora and fauna, along with a tribe of primitive humans. This is a mystery which can only be solved by climbing. But what will they find at the top of the tree?

So, again, this story features some really superb sound design. You really feel like you’re deep in the jungle of some tropical planet. There are times when the animals within the forest are just as loud as the characters talking, which really feels accurate to what you’d imagine a forest world like this would sound like. I really appreciate the ambitious nature of this story and its setting. Between the alien world and the actual aliens in the story, it would have been nearly impossible to show a story like this on TV with the budget that Doctor Who is able to get from the BBC. I think Big Finish audios for the new series Doctors should absolutely focus on stories, like this one, that literally wouldn’t have been able to be told on TV. Unfortunately, the story itself didn’t entirely work for me. I don’t think there’s anything really wrong with it as a story, it just didn’t hold my attention as well as some of the other stories in this set did. It’s written well, performed well, and paced well, it’s just not a premise that I was interested in, so it was hard for me to really get engaged with the story. That’s not a knock on the story; it just clearly wasn’t my cup of tea. It’s still good, though, and plenty of people will enjoy it for various reasons. I really liked hearing Danny Horn as Kazran again. That’s just a fun character and I’m glad that we’re able to occasionally see him from time to time. I do feel that Big Finish might be using him a bit too much at this point, but it’s still working for me. All in all, while the actual narrative of this story didn’t quite work for me, I enjoyed it a lot and the sound design and acting more than make it worthwhile. (3.5 out of 5 wands)

The Light Keepers by Roy Gill
And now we reach what is probably my favorite story on this set. It features the return of Simon Fisher-Becker as Dorium Maldovar, a character that I adored during the Eleventh Doctor’s era who I feel like we saw too little of and then never saw again after series 6. This story tells the story of the first time the Doctor met Dorium (though not the first time that Dorium met the Doctor…) Dorium Maldovar has a problem. The self-styled ‘Beacon People’ are bad for business, and now they’re in his shuttle park, digging for mysterious minerals. When the Doctor crashes into his life once again, Dorium enlists him to find out what these scavengers are really up to inside their lighthouse. But a lighthouse signals danger – and this beacon was placed to warn of something more ancient and powerful than anyone knows. Something that is returning… 

I only have positive things to say about this story. Everything about it just clicked for me. It was so nice to hear from Dorium again, and Simon Fisher-Becker remains as wonderful as the character as he’s always been. Roy Gill really utilized Dorium well in this story. We got to see, and learn, more about him than we’ve previously gotten the chance to. We really see how he’s a bit of a lousy being, really selfish and unpleasant to be around for long periods of time, and it’s nice seeing how Dorium ended up in the debt of the Doctor. I really enjoyed the narrative of this story, as well. It’s always fun when there’s a twist on who the “bad guys” are. You think it’s gonna go one way and then it twists and you find the Doctor siding with the people who appeared to be the antagonists for the whole story and that’s always a fun time. This story, like all the others, featured some good sound design and some really good acting. I think Dudman is at his best as the 11th Doctor in this story. He just perfectly captures the character and hearing him interact with Simon Fisher-Becker’s Dorium feels like you’re watching an episode with Matt Smith and Simon Fisher-Becker on screen. It’s really, really great. The hybridization of the audiobook/audio drama formats worked a lot better for me here than it did in the others. It’s like they let the sound design and the acting tell a bit more of the story rather than constantly relying on narration to fill in gaps. It helped that Dudman only had to play a few other roles besides the Doctor and the narrator, and those other roles sounded different enough from each other that you genuinely did forget you were listening to an audiobook and it felt more like a really good audio drama. I dug it. (4.5 out of 5 wands)

False Coronets by Alice Cavender
This story features the Eleventh Doctor and Clara Oswald (both played by Jacob Dudman in this story). It’s a story that features the two of them meeting Jane Austen (played by Nathalie Buscombe) and could be set anywhere between The Bells of Saint John and Time of the Doctor, a nice chunk of space that leaves a lot of room for a lot of different, interesting stories. On the trail of a temporal anomaly, the Doctor and Clara arrive in a London dungeon, where an unlikely prisoner awaits her execution. This is a 19th Century England where the King has been dethroned, and Republicans bearing false coronets hold sway. While the Doctor seeks out the source of alien interference in the timelines, Clara recruits some local help – and gets invited to a party. History has gone awry, and Jane Austen must help rewrite it. 

Like the first story in this set, I have mixed feelings about False Coronets. The actual narrative is really good; it’s a faux-historical, like much of the revived series of Doctor Who has featured, featuring Jane Austen in an England that’s been affected by some kind of aberration to time. That aberration comes from a particularly interesting alien and the whole thing is absolutely well written and executed. The problem is, like in The Calendar Man, Jacob Dudman’s inability to really sound like the companion. Here, he mostly captures Jenna Coleman’s accent as Clara, but that’s about it. It’s sorta just distracting. He sounds so much like Matt Smith and so little like Jenna Coleman that it just immediately takes me out of it. Maybe Big Finish shouldn’t have him voicing female characters and should find somebody else who can more closely impersonate the companions for these boxsets? I don’t wanna sound like I’m hating on him; he does a really good job in this story and throughout the set. He does have a lot of emotion as Clara, it’s just that he sounds so distractingly unlike her that I can’t ever fully buy it within the context of this audiobook/audio drama hybrid format. If he were the only voice actor, I could buy it, but with there being other voice actors playing other characters, it’s just a bit distracting, I guess. But, this time, that issue wasn’t enough to really detract from my enjoyment of the story, especially the further along it went. It’s the meeting between Clara and Jane Austen that the TV series had been teasing and I’d always wanted to see, and it’s just a whole lot of fun. Dudman is great as the Eleventh Doctor here, aside from sounding nothing like Jenna Coleman, he’s really good as Clara too. And he’s good in whatever other roles he plays (it’s hard to know exactly which roles he plays, because he does such a good job at changing his voice for the various male characters that you don’t even notice it, it’s just when he has to do female characters whose voices your familiar with where it doesn’t work so well). But all in all, it’s a well written and produced story and feels like an adventure that the 11th Doctor and Clara would have had. (4 out of 5 wands)

All in all, I have some mixed feelings about The Eleventh Doctor Chronicles (and these Doctor Chronicles sets in general). The impersonations of the new series Doctors are often good, but the hybridized audiobook/audio drama format doesn’t quite work for me. There’s something that just… doesn’t click for me. If it were just Jacob Dudman doing all of the voices (like a regular audiobook), I’d totally buy into it. I think where it loses me is when there are other people doing voices too, especially other female cast members, and it sounds like a regular audio drama (just with some narration), it breaks my immersion when he has to voice a character (like Amy or Clara) that he really can’t imitate (since he’s, you know, a male), whereas if this were just an ordinary audiobook, I would expect those characters to sound like the narrator, since that’s how audiobooks work. I understand Big Finish wanting to tell stories with the new Doctors and I understand that most of these newer Doctors are just a bit too busy to really devote any time to recording audios for Big Finish, so they’re left between a rock and a hard place. I’d like to see them either continue with this format, but not include any companions whose original actors they can’t get to record the audios (so that Dudman only has to impersonate the Doctor and play the narrator and whatever other minor characters are created for that specific story) or just have these be straight up audiobook stories where Dudman does all of the voices. Either of those would work better, for me, as my favorite stories in this set were the ones where Dudman only had to play the Doctor, the Narrator, and other minor roles while another actor played the main companion.

The only real problems I have with this set boil down to that general problem I have with the format. Jacob Dudman is doing amazing work. Even when he’s voicing a character that he, realistically, can’t really imitate, he still brings a lot of emotion to them and you can still hear bits of their voice in his, even though they’re nowhere near as good as his 11th Doctor impersonation. In terms of the writing, all of these stories are written very well. The sound design throughout the set is pretty superb as well. From a narrative standpoint, all of these stories feel like they could have been a part of the 11th Doctor’s era (had budgets not been a thing) and all of them really give Jacob Dudman the chance to shine as the Eleventh Doctor. His 11th Doctor is even better than his 10th Doctor is. I do hope to see more of these sets as I’d like to hear more of the 11th Doctor in general, and if we can’t get Matt Smith, Dudman is definitely a good second choice. I just hope that they tweak the format a bit to make the best use of Dudman instead of having him do voices he just can’t realistically do.

(4 out of 5 wands; the Dorium story and the high quality of writing in the Jane Austen story help elevate the whole box set to a 4 instead of a 3.5)

 

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