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It was Louise Jameson‘s birthday yesterday, so what better time to look back on her first Companion Chronicle in the role of Leela: The Catalyst by Nigel Fairs! This was one of the first Big Finish releases I ever listened to, so it’s always been a favourite of mine… but does it stand up to a relisten? Read on to find out!
While the main bulk of The Catalyst‘s narrative takes place during Leela’s travels with the Doctor, the story opens many years after she left him to live on Gallifrey. After the Time Lords were destroyed in the Time War, Leela finds herself captured by the Z’nai, a race of alien warlords who wish to know all about Gallifrey and its people. Despite being submitted to relentless torture and questioning, however, Leela remains defiant, warning her captor that, by the end of this interrogation, one of them will be dead… and it’s not going to be her.
The story then flashes back into the past, with Leela recounting how she met the Z’nai for the very first time, way back when she was travelling in the TARDIS. She tells us how the Doctor took her to visit his old friend Lord Douglas, an explorer with whom he had been on many an adventure, and how, in his cellar, she discovered a Z’nai warrior held in suspended animation. The warrior, whose name is H’mbrackle, is played by Timothy Watson, who has the perfect voice to play such a character: ever so slightly terrifying in its well-spoken gravely-ness.
The narrative takes an interesting turn when H’mbrackle tells Leela that he was imprisoned in the cellar by the Doctor, a fact she immediately goes to confront him about. In her absence, however, the Z’nai escapes confinement and begins a killing spree in anticipation for the arrival of the rest of his race. Soon, the Doctor and Leela find themselves up against a whole army of Z’nai, and must work out how to stop them before they convert the whole of humanity into a new race of killing machines.
This second half of the tale undeniably works a little less well than the first, turning into somewhat more standard Doctor Who fare, but it still has some great moments, particularly for Leela’s character. The Fourth Doctor is also well-written, given a slightly sinister undertone that, while perhaps a little at odds with Tom Baker‘s portrayal of the character on TV, works well in the context of the narrative and is a fresh, new direction in which to take this particular incarnation of the Doctor. Fairs should also be praised for his handling of the Z’nai, who, by dint of the strong development he gives them throughout the story, are one of the more effective original monsters created for Big Finish.
Another strong point of this story is its music, which is also handled by Fairs. The arrival of the Z’nai is heralded by a glorious track full of portentous choir vocals, while H’mbrackle’s awakening is underscored by some suitably sinister, tension-building piano. Meanwhile, sound designer David Darlington creates a lovely gothic atmosphere throughout the piece, with the likes of ticking clocks, creaking floorboards and, at the story’s climax, apocalyptic thunder, lightning and fire.
At the story’s close, we return to the older Leela as she is tortured by the Z’nai. There isn’t an actual resolution to that storyline, or an explanation as to why she’s been captured, but I think that the ambiguity here is a good thing. Nevertheless, the ending is a little too abrupt for my liking, and could have perhaps benefited from a minute or two more of exploration, though what’s there is still a nice and dramatic way to close off the tale.
Overall, the slower, more contemplative first part of this story is undeniably stronger than the second, though it does suffer a little from its slightly longer runtime of just over40 minutes. Part two is still very good indeed, but its sudden transformation into a more stereotypical invasion story does mean that the gorgeously Gothic atmosphere that Fairs builds in part one is somewhat undercut. Nevertheless, this is still a strong release, giving us an intriguing insight into Leela’s life after her time with the Doctor, with the script being well-served by Louise Jameson and Timothy Watson‘s impeccable performances. Highly recommended.
The Catalyst is available from http://www.bigfinish.com