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Rory Williams makes his Big Finish debut as Arthur Darvill returns in The Lone Centurion: an all-new series of adventures for our favourite Roman as he protects the Pandorica throughout Earth’s history. This first volume is set in Ancient Rome (though with the twist of being in the alternate timeline created in The Pandorica Opens), following Rory as he ingratiates himself with the royal household and becomes embroiled in all sorts of mayhem. So, without further ado, onto the review!
1. “Gladiator” by David Llewellyn
Rory’s Roman adventures begin with Gladiator, by David Llewellyn which, as its title suggests, starts in the thick of the gladiatorial arena. After they witness Rory getting right back up after being stabbed in the heart (thanks to his being reincarnated as a Nestene duplicate), the Caesars hire him as their personal bodyguard, charging him to defend the Emperor at all costs. Of course, someone is conspiring to kill Rome’s esteemed ruler, and it’s down to Rory to find out who… before it’s too late!
Arthur Darvill makes a welcome return as Rory, slipping back into the part effortlessly. Immortality aside, his character doesn’t get all that much exploration in this story, though the sheer joy of his return after so long makes up for that somewhat. In any case, Darvill gives an engaging performance, and it’s great to hear some of what Rory gets up to when he’s not with the Doctor and Amy.
Darvill is joined by Joseph Tweedale and Joanna Van Kampen as Caesar and his wife Augusta respectively, and both are strong additions to the cast. Tweedale is delightfully snivelling as the ill-fated Emperor, while Van Kampen’s snide, haughty performance as Augusta is one of the highlights of the set.
The guest cast is completed by Jacob Dudman as the traitorous Lepidus, Inès de Clercq as stagehand Marcella and Terry Molloy (yes, Davros himself!) as fanatical prophet Tacitus. All do a great job in their roles, creating a strong ensemble cast for this first episode that helps to quickly and clearly establish the Roman setting in which the rest of the boxset takes place.
Overall, this is a great opening episode, with an engaging plot, strong performances and some very evocative sound design and music from Rob Harvey. As I said before, this script could have done with a little more focus on Rory, but otherwise it’s an impressive start to the series.
2. “The Unwilling Assassin” by Sarah Ward
The Unwilling Assassin by Sarah Ward picks up where the previous story left off, with the new Empress of Rome seeking to secure her power by getting rid of all those who oppose her. To this end, she appoints Rory as her personal assassin, and sends him out to kill her enemies. The only problem is… Rory really doesn’t want to kill anyone.
What follows is an entertaining romp through the streets of Rome as Rory tries his very hardest to make it look like he’s carrying out the Empress’s orders… without actually doing it. Ward clearly has a very strong sense of Rory’s character, highlighting his pacifistic moral code without ever making him seem weak or incapable, and this is definitely reflected in Arthur Darvill‘s performance. Meanwhile, Joanna Van Kampen gets to play a more tyrannical, paranoid version of Augusta, clearly relishing her power-hungry attempts to vanquish those who might threaten her rule.
Robyn Holdaway joins the cast here as Augusta’s personal spy, Decima, who is the perfect foil for Rory throughout the piece. Meanwhile, Terry Molloy returns as Tacitus, who gets some more exploration after making his debut in the opening story.
All in all, while this episode has a strong central premise, I thought it a little bit overlong, which, given that it doesn’t really do anything aside from the ‘Rory has to kill someone but cunningly avoids it’ storyline, means the middle section drags quite a bit. It’s still a good story, though, further deepening and broadening the characters and setting introduced in Gladiator, and ending with a shocker of a cliffhanger in preparation for the boxset finale.
3. “I, Rorius” by Jacqueline Rayner
Rory’s Roman adventures conclude with I, Rorius by Jacqueline Rayner, which sees him grappling with his new role as Emperor. As in the previous episodes, there’s political intrigue, deadly dangers and a variety of colourful guest characters, but mixed in with this is a profound and surprisingly emotional exploration of the toll this new life has taken on Rory, and, as such, this is easily the best story in the boxset.
Much of this analysis of Rory’s is facilitated by the new character of Anna, played by Samantha Béart (who also plays Orr in the Torchwood range). She’s Rory’s first real friend in this strange new world he’s found himself in and, while she’s an interesting character in her own right (both in writing and in performance), she’s also the perfect way to get into the head of our main character. Her final scene with Rory at the end of the play is surprisingly stirring, and her other interactions with him throughout the story are the absolute highlights of the script.
Overall, I think this might be my favourite individual story from Big Finish this year. The plot is admittedly nothing groundbreaking, but Rayner’s handle on the character of Rory is strong and clear, and she effortlessly gives us some much-needed exploration of his mindset during his 2000 years guarding the Pandorica; exploration that the TV series by and large eschewed. Almost flawless.
The Lone Centurion is an enjoyable boxset from start to finish, with two entertaining opening instalments and a properly brilliant conclusion by Jacqueline Rayner. Arthur Darvill clearly relishes returning to the role of Rory, and does a fantastic job reprising the part, bolstered by a consistently wonderful guest cast. Add to that some very impressive sound design and music from Rob Harvey, and this boxset is a very great success indeed, and I very much look forward to hearing Rory’s adventures in Camelot when the second boxset comes out next year. Recommended.
The Lone Centurion: Volume One is available now on CD or as a download from http://www.bigfinish.com