Daniel Mansfield and Matt Wilson discuss the latest set of adventures for the Ninth Doctor: Respond to All Calls!
Matt Wilson: The second volume of Christopher Eccleston’s new era has arrived, and it certainly does not fall into the trap of ‘difficult second album syndrome’. What I’m about to say may be controversial: I wasn’t the biggest fan of Ravagers. Whilst it was incredible to have the Doctor who started my journey and love for this universe return despite all the odds, my opinion was and remains that this was not the story to reintroduce us to the Ninth Doctor. In my opinion, Big Finish should have employed the same technique they used for David Tennant’s return, i.e., a boxset of three unconnected solo adventures, and bring the wider story arcs later in the Doctor’s run, such as what we’re now seeing with Dalek Universe.
Daniel Mansfield: And that’s exactly what they’ve done with this new boxset: Respond to All Calls. While the first set, Ravagers, was one big story told over three episodes, here we’ve got three individual, standalone stories. I agree with Matt in that, while Ravagers was perfectly serviceable, this is much more to my taste in terms of what I wanted from Ninth Doctor audios: something that emulates the past-present-future structure of the Russell T Davies series, with more character-based storytelling and less hard sci-fi.
MW: Where Respond to All Calls excels is in its simplicity. There’s no arc to worry about or jumping around the timelines, like in Ravagers, meaning it’s certainly the safer, more accessible and more enjoyable route. On top of that, it’s a very strong second part to the run.
DM: The set opens with Girl, Deconstructed, by Lisa McMullin. Young Marnie McDonald has gone missing, and her father, Kurt, is out of his mind with worry. Except, Marnie hasn’t really gone missing at all. She’s right there with her father; she can see and hear him, but he can’t see or hear her. What has happened to Marnie? And who is the mysterious stranger who has turned up out of the blue to assist Missing Persons officer Jana Lee with the case?
MW: This is very much my kind of Doctor Who story. It’s contained in terms of scale, but has large stakes. Lisa McMullin gives us an episode with similar vibes to TV stories such as Father’s Day and The Lodger.
DM: Exactly. Even though this is the fourth story for Christopher Eccleston‘s Ninth Doctor released by Big Finish, it’s the first one that truly feels like a missing adventure for the character- one that we could have seen on TV back in 2005. As with many of the stories in that landmark first series of modern Doctor Who, this script has a strong focus on character, eschewing any kind of complicated sci-fi plotting in favour of quiet, contemplative storytelling. This is Girl, Deconstructed‘s biggest success.
McMullin does an excellent job at bringing about that homey feel that made the Russell T Davies era of Doctor Who so successful, narrowing the focus down to a few, well-drawn characters, rather than attempting to write some kind of epic. While this means the story itself is somewhat simplistic (find out what’s happened to Marnie and put it right), this is by no means a bad thing, because, as a result of McMullin’s excellent character construction, the listener has a real emotional investment in what’s going on right from the very first scene.
MW: It’s also a wonderfully unique take on your classic ghost/haunted house story, and in a way would provide a level of comfort for those who have lost people. It begins in a dark way, even for a Ninth Doctor story, with the disappearance of 61 children in one hour in Dundee alone. Despite this, we have laughs, including a very funny one liner about Star Trek.
DM: The star of the show here is Mirren Mack as poor, deconstructed Marnie, who is compelling in both writing and performance, while Pearl Appleby also puts in a strong performance as the Doctor’s pseudo-companion for this story, the hardworking-but-skeptical Jana Lee. Meanwhile, Forbes Masson tugs at the heartstrings as Marnie’s bereft father Kurt, and Benjamin Davies evokes similar pathos as another victim of whatever’s going on: Douglas.
Complete with a delightfully cheeky performance from Christopher Eccleston, who brings perfectly to life the impish irreverence with which McMullin imbues the Doctor, Girl, Deconstructed is a strong way to open this new boxset of audio adventures for the Ninth Doctor, a delightful throwback the soap opera trappings of 2005 Who, while being fresh and modern at the same time. Great stuff.
DM: The Doctor arrives in Paris in 1946, where he encounters struggling musician Artie Berger. Artie has lost his perfect pitch, and is being followed by a creature that drags sound along in its wake. Joining with the Doctor, Artie and his friends must outrun the creature, before they find a way of stopping it. But is their foe all that it seems?
MW: Whilst this story is a little more action-packed than its predecessor, it falls into a similar trap as other Big Finish stories have, where the villain is a faceless, voiceless entity that our heroes run away from in loud set-pieces. Personally, this style of Doctor Who isn’t for me, as I prefer my villains to be more dialogue-based. Despite this, the inclusion of some lovely character moments in this piece, particularly from Artie (Damien Lynch) and Maurice (Adrian Schiller), means this is still an enjoyable listen, and Gemma Whelan is a delight as always.
DM: I’ll agree that the characters on show here are very compelling, but I didn’t think this intimate storytelling works in this particular story’s favour. Writer Tim Foley takes the listener on a madcap journey across Paris, from a classy hotel, to Notre Dame to a jazz club, and yet I didn’t feel that the story ever really picked up much pace. And, as you say, the story’s antagonist is quite weak, with the monster only popping up a handful of times. This means the characters never really feel in much jeopardy, but also that we never really get a handle on what exactly it is.
Part of the problem is with the sound design, I think. For a story all about sound, the post-production on this one seems notably lackluster. The sound creature isn’t brought to life particularly well, basically just roaring most of the time, and a lot of the action sequences come off a bit flat. The resolution, which, as you might guess, features a lot of music, is curiously quiet and subdued, which really puts a dampener on things.
Overall, I can’t quite put my finger on exactly what I didn’t like about Fright Motif. There’s a great story in there, and some lovely moments throughout, but maybe another couple of drafts would have been a good idea, just to tighten everything up.
MW: The last story in the set, Planet of the End, is the crowning glory of the Ninth Doctor’s Big Finish journey so far. The Doctor arrives on Occasus, a mausoleum planet. Here, he meets AI interface Fred (played by the brilliant Margaret Clunie), as well as the sinister Incorporation, who feel like a genuine threat, and whose actions put the Doctor on the back foot for much of the story.
DM: Absolutely; this is definitely the best story for the Ninth Doctor we’ve yet seen in these two boxsets. Funny, creative, and with some really great characters, Timothy X Atack‘s script is a joy from start to finish. There are some delightfully surreal, Douglas Adams-esque moments throughout, and the aforementioned AI Fred is one of the best original characters Big Finish have created in recent years. At the end of this story, I was literally begging for her to join the Doctor on his travels, such was the strength of Atack’s writing, and Clunie’s performance.
MW: Atack has really done a sterling job with this story, and it’ss the best exploration and expansion of the Ninth Doctor since he left us in The Parting of the Ways. The dialogue and imagery are engaging throughout, and it’s interesting and fun to imagine the Ninth Doctor in a slightly different way (no spoilers). Eccleston’s consistently outstanding performance reaches new heights, and Atack has found the Ninth Doctor’s voice with ease. I certainly hope he returns for more Ninth Doctor stories in the future. I’d go so far as to say that this is not only one of my favourite Big Finish stories, but one of the best Ninth Doctor stories we’ve ever had.
DM: This was a really great way to end the boxset. Just fantastic stuff.
Overall, Respond to All Calls is a wonderful addition to the life of our favourite leather-jacketed Time Lord. It picks up the baton from where Ravagers left off and runs to new heights, in what promises to be one of Big Finish’s strongest, and I’m sure most popular, ranges going forward. Highly recommended.
The Ninth Doctor Adventures: Respond to All Calls is available on CD, as a download or on limited-edition vinyl from http://www.bigfinish.com