Who’d have thought it? This time two years ago, the likelihood of any further adventures for Christopher Eccleston‘s Ninth Doctor seemed very slim indeed… and now here we are in 2022, with his FIFTH Big Finish boxset! Back to Earth is the first of four sets making up the second series of Ninth Doctor Adventures, comprised of three Earth-based tales, which see the Doctor trapped in a spooky station, solving the mystery of an impostor Russian tsar, and joining a family to celebrate the New Year. But is it any good? Read on to find out?
1. “Station to Station” by Robert Valentine
Saffron Windrose is on her way to break some big news to her family when she finds herself stuck at Underbridge station. Haunted by a sinister foe known as the Grimminy-Grue and pursued by ghosts, she has only a mysterious stranger called the Doctor to keep her company. What is the secret of Underbridge? Who is the Grimminy-Grue? And will Saffron ever get home?
Station to Station is a gloriously evocative story, set in a station where multiple time periods have been smashed together by an all-powerful foe. Oddly, it’s not particularly scary, nor does it have a particularly complex plot, but it’s full of some lovely interactions between the Doctor and Saffron (Indigo Griffiths), who make a fine pairing, and through whom writer Robert Valentine makes some poignant points about the nature of decisions, and the ideas of home and belonging.
The villain of the piece, the Grimminy-Grue, is an interesting creation played well by Ian Bartholomew and, while he’s little more than a creepy background presence for much of the story, his final confrontation with the Doctor is electric both in writing and performance, and is the standout moment in the episode. Aside from the Doctor, Saffron and the Grue, the other guest characters in this story aren’t particularly memorable, but when this central trio is so strong, that’s not really a major issue.
Overall, despite a slightly sluggish plot, Station to Station is well-written and performed, with an interesting villain and some heartwarming emotional scenes. A strong opener to the boxset.
2. “The False Dimitry” by Sarah Grochala
The Doctor arrives in Moscow on the eve of Tsar Boris Fyodorovich Godunov’s death, and becomes embroiled in a plot to take the Russian throne! Dimitry Ivanovich is marching on the city… but how is that possible when he died years ago? With time running out fast, the Doctor must work out how the dead are coming back to life, before history is changed forever.
The False Dimitry is an interesting premise for a story, set during the Russian Time of Troubles, when, amidst the Russian-Polish War, a series of imposter tsars claimed that they were next in line to rule. Sarah Grochala‘s script gives a suitably sci-fi explanation for at least one of these imposters, but otherwise is an informative look at this lesser-known part of history.
Christopher Eccleston is on form here, though the material he’s given in this script isn’t as strong as elsewhere in the boxset, while the guest cast is, by and large, effective. There are one or two overblown performances, but, apart from that, this is a well-performed story.
Overall, The False Dimitry doesn’t set the world on fire, and isn’t quite as thought provoking as the other two stories in the set, but it’s a perfectly entertaining way to spend an hour, and an interesting historical.
3. “Auld Lang Syne” by Tim Foley
Auld Lang Syne follows the Litherland family over a number of years, as they spend New Year’s Eve in Fould’s House. As strange things start to happen, Mandy Litherland falls in with the house’s enigmatic caretaker, the Doctor, who makes her promise to return to the house every year. Could Mandy be connected to the unearthly events taking place in Fould’s House?
It’s really hard to condense this story down into a synopsis that does it justice, not because it’s packed with lots of ideas and huge plot twists, but because it’s more of a character drama than a traditional Doctor Who story. There isn’t much in the way of actual incident, with Tim Foley choosing to focus on the Litherlands and the way their relationships with each other and with the Doctor change over the years, but this is the story’s biggest strength, hearkening back to the Ninth Doctor’s TV stories, which were always rooted in the experiences of real people.
Christopher Eccleston and Leah Brotherhead, who plays Mandy, have excellent chemistry, and form a fantastic pairing, their relationship taking the Ninth Doctor in an unexpected but delightful direction. Brotherhead is the star of this story, bringing the script’s emotional, comedic and sci-fi scenes to life with equal flair; let’s hope Big Finish bring her back in some other roles in the future.
The cast is rounded off by the inimitable Wendy Craig as the crotchety Great Aunt Bette, Hayley Tamaddon, who imbues Auntie Sue with genuine warmth, and Greig Johnson as the endearingly awkward Frank. Foley’s script gives each of them time to shine, with Craig and Tamaddon in particular having some effective emotional material towards the end of the story.
Heartwarming, heartbreaking and with an intriguing mystery at its heart, Auld Lang Syne is not only the best story in this boxset, but the best Big Finish story so far this year, eschewing hard sci-fi for some beautiful character drama. Excellent stuff.
Back to Earth is a strong collection of stories, taking the Ninth Doctor on three very different adventures on his favourite planet. Well-performed throughout by Christopher Eccleston and the guest cast, this set is informative, exciting, emotional and thought-provoking, and is brought to life by Helen Goldwyn‘s stellar direction, Howard Carter‘s score and Iain Meadows‘ evocative sound design. Highly recommended.
The Ninth Doctor Adventures: Back to Earth is available on CD, as a download or on limited-edition vinyl from http://www.bigfinish.com