It’s an absolute delight to be living in a world where Christopher Eccleston is acting in new Doctor Who stories featuring his Doctor. Like Paul McGann, Eccleston’s time on the show was brief but full of promise. So, it’s quite nice to see him return to the role after a nearly sixteen-year absence in a new series of audio dramas for Big Finish. Unfortunately, the first set of these stories, Doctor Who: Ravagers, isn’t the home run it could’ve been. It’s not a bad set, or anything, just an underwhelming one. It’s a three-part story that’s stretched across two-and-a-half hours and, honestly, the story just doesn’t support its length. But still—it feels like a story that might’ve aired during the Ninth Doctor’s era. Plus, Christopher Eccleston was always going to be the selling point of these sets and he doesn’t disappoint here. (3 out of 5 wands.)
(NOTE: Minor spoilers for Doctor Who: Ravagers follow. Major plot points are not spoiled, but read at your own risk.)
“Doctor Who: Ravagers”
(written by Nicholas Briggs)
1.1 Sphere of Freedom – On the Sphere of Freedom, the Doctor is about to shut down an evil Immersive Games business empire. He’s assisted by a valiant galley chef called Nova. But his plan spectacularly fails… And who exactly is Audrey?
1.2 Cataclysm – Nova is dislocated in time while the Time Eddies are out of control. Meanwhile, the Doctor is about to face the end of the universe. Or is that just the Battle of Waterloo?
1.3 Food Fight – The TARDIS is starting to get a little crowded! Audrey finds herself haunted by a ghostly Doctor.
Doctor Who: Ravagers is basically a single 45-60 minute Doctor Who episode that’s been stretched to an exhausting 150-minute runtime. Honestly, every story in this box set could probably have composed about 15-20 minutes of a normal Doctor Who episode. Instead, all three episodes (written by Nicholas Briggs) are 45-60 minutes…each. The first episode starts the whole set off on a pretty rocky path. I mean, beginning a story with the apparent death of Nova (Camilla Beeput), a character the audience has never met, isn’t the most explosive way to start a story. And then spending the next forty minutes explaining what happened before those first five minutes doesn’t exactly make for an engaging experience. There’s just not a lot of tension to be found when the whole episode builds up to a climax that happened at the episode’s beginning.
Now, Briggs does try to spice things up by having the Doctor’s conversation with Audrey (Jayne McKenna), where he explains what he and Nova were up to before Nova’s apparent death, act as a framing device. But this doesn’t entirely work either as the writing seems to suggest that the audience isn’t supposed to immediately assume Audrey is gonna be the story’s antagonist, with the framing device hinging on that big reveal as the episode’s cliffhanger. But it’s immediately obvious that’s where this is going, so the whole episode is just a waiting game for that reveal—and the subsequent cliffhanger that promises to kick the story into gear. And, to be fair, it kind of does. The problem is that there’s just not enough plot to justify another 105 minutes of story.
Episodes 2 and 3 are where the bulk of the actual action happens, with the Doctor and Nova reuniting and plotting to stop Audrey from accidentally bringing about the end of the universe by harnessing time eddies to take people out of their proper timelines for use in some kind of VR game, thereby inadvertently releasing some nearby creatures (the titular Ravagers) who intend to eat the universe. Or something. Honestly, the plot is really hard to follow because it’s caked underneath enough timey wimey elements to make a Steven Moffat episode look conventional. There are so many scenes where characters interact with past versions of other characters or cross their own time streams, and it’s really difficult to follow. Perhaps these kinds of stories aren’t well suited for an audio-only medium, where you don’t have any visual cues to help establish where and when you are in time (and in the story). And without those clues, I found it nearly impossible to actually follow what was happening. It was just one scene after another, slowly building to a climax in the third episode that did (to its credit) more-or-less explain what happened. Though, the explanation wasn’t a particularly satisfying one.
Still, it’s not a bad story. The plot is interesting, even if it’s hard to follow. And there’s a lot of fun to be had in a story whose main conflict seems to revolve around the Doctor making bad assumptions and being hesitant to trust people. The problem with Ravagers is that it’s a really solid 45-minute episode that’s been expanded into a two-and-a-half-hour one without any of the character development or plot exploration that such an expansion would benefit from. Nova, in particular, is never developed in a way that makes her feel like a person instead of a generic companion archetype and her and the Doctor’s plan to stop Audrey is never properly explained, undercutting much of the third episode’s energy. The pacing is really off. Everything moves at a snail’s pace, with far too much time being spent on explaining the story’s intricacies instead of allowing the story to play out through the character’s actions. Plus, there are just a ton of unneeded diversions that take up time that could’ve been used to develop the characters more. I mean, the entire subplot featuring the various time-displaced soldiers could’ve been entirely cut (or, at minimum, significantly trimmed down), for a start. If you’re not gonna expand upon the characters, or more fully explore the plot, then what’s the purpose in having a story as long as this one? Edited down, this could’ve been quite a compelling story that would’ve fit in perfectly among other episodes in the RTD era.
Now, I know it sounds like I hated Ravagers, but I honestly didn’t. Yes, I think the narrative has a lot of flaws on a fundamental level. But the boxset remains extremely enjoyable despite those problems. A lot of this rests on Eccleston’s shoulders. His performance is exactly as good as you want it to be. Yes, he doesn’t quite feel or sound like the same Doctor that appeared alongside Rose in the show’s first series, but he’s not meant to feel that way. This is a Doctor that exists sometime between the end of the Time War and his initial encounter with Rose. He’s a man who wants to be optimistic but has a lot of trouble trusting people (and the universe). And that distrust gets him into a lot of trouble and interferes with his ability to actually save the day in a Doctory fashion. It’s a very compelling character arc for this first boxset, and Eccleston portrays it beautifully.
The rest of the cast are great, too. Jayne McKenna is excellent as Audrey—especially as the later episodes delve deeper into her character and give McKenna a lot more depth to play with. McKenna frequently acted as a wonderful foil for Eccleston’s Doctor, and it was a dynamic I adored listening to. I may not have liked Nova as a character, but I can’t deny how good a performance Camilla Beeput gave. Beeput and Eccleston have a lot of great chemistry together, and it was a joy to listen to the two of them bounce off one another. I just wish Beeput had been given a more fully fleshed-out character to play with.
The other star of the show is the atmosphere. Ravagers truly feels like an episode of Doctor Who’s first season—albeit one written by a writer that hews closer to Moffat’s sensibilities than Davies’s. Much of this is due to Briggs’s witty-yet-personable dialogue, but a lot of praise should be heaped on Briggs’ directing, Iain Meadows’ sound design, and Howard Carter’s score. Ravagers sounds fantastic. Every aspect of the audio landscape makes you feel like you’re in the thick of the action, and Carter’s score feels similar to Murray Gold’s early Doctor Who work without ever feeling like a copy-and-paste job. The combination of superb performances, solid dialogue, great directing, and even better sound design and music makes for a story that’s deeply enjoyable to listen to and worthy of the Doctor Who mantle.
Overall, Doctor Who: Ravagers is a bit of a mixed bag. It’s an absolute delight hearing Christopher Eccleston as the Ninth Doctor again. He slips right back into the role and it’s as though he never left. All of the performances are superb, the music is great, the sound design is even better, and the story feels like an episode of RTD-era Doctor Who. The problem is that it’s a 45-minute episode that’s been needlessly expanded to a two-and-a-half-hour runtime, without the added benefit of further character development or plot exploration. And it’s a shame because, with a lot of editing, Ravagers could’ve made for an exciting opening story for this boxset, being followed up by another two stand-alone (or loosely connected) stories of similar quality. Instead, we’ve got a slow-paced, hard-to-follow story with too little action, too much time spent explaining the plot, and a somewhat disappointing ending. It’s not the greatest introduction to this new era for the Ninth Doctor. It’s not a bad story, but it’s not a great one, either. That being said, I’m still excited to see where Big Finish goes from here. I think there’s a bright future ahead for the Ninth Doctor in these audio dramas.
3 out of 5 wands.