A new era begins for the Sixth Doctor! Water Worlds, the first instalment in a revamped series of Sixth Doctor Adventures from Big Finish, sees Old Sixie and his trusty companion Mel encounter Hebe Harrison (Ruth Madeley), a wheelchair-using marine biologist, who joins them on their adventures through time and space. In these three stories, this new TARDIS team will travel to all kinds of watery destinations, encountering new friends, and fighting terrible foes. But are they any good? Read on to find out!
1. “The Rotting Deep” by Jacqueline Rayner
The Doctor and Mel follow a distress call to Albatross Alpha, a disused oil rig in the North Sea whose inhabitants are being plagued by a squabble of voracious gulls who won’t let them escape. Among the beleaguered occupants of the rig is Hebe Harrison, a marine biologist who becomes friends with the TARDIS twosome, and may just be the key to working out what is going on beneath the waters below…
As writer Jacqueline Rayner says in the Behind the Scenes feature, The Rotting Deep is a traditional base-under-siege style Doctor Who story, seeing the Doctor and friends trapped somewhere and having to deal with an enemy trying to work their way inside. Despite the familiar premise, there are some novel elements in Rayner’s script that make it so this story isn’t just a rehash of things we’ve seen and heard before, though the plot remains simple and easy to follow.
That’s no problem, though, as the focus here is on Ruth Madeley‘s Hebe: the latest in a long line of TARDIS travellers who makes her debut in this story. Sarcastic and acerbic, but with a glorious kindness at her heart, Hebe is the kind of companion we haven’t really seen before (she’s kind of a mix between Lucie Miller and Liv Chenka), not least because she gets about using a wheelchair. This leads to some thought-provoking scenes throughout the story where Hebe gives her perspective on being a wheelchair-user, and how, despite what others might think, she is no less able than anybody else. As you’d expect, Rayner handles the material sensitively and her characterisation of Hebe, along with Madeley’s performance, ensures that TBA
Colin Baker and Bonnie Langford are on top form as the Doctor and Mel throughout this story, both having great chemistry with Madeley and being given significant roles in the plot by Rayner. Watch out for a particularly touching scene towards the end of the script, where the Doctor learns of a theretofore undiscovered connection between himself and Hebe which recalls a much-loved member of the Big Finish family, and which will be sure to tug at the heartstrings.
The rest of the guest cast is effective, though the guest characters themselves are a trifle underdeveloped, adhering mostly to basic archetypes and not really contributing much to the plot. The best served is Rove McManus‘s Jonah, a slightly seedy Australian who gets some great, and quite unsettlingly performed, material in part two when he falls under the influence of this episode’s villain.
Steve Foxon handles this story’s sound design, and does a great job at bringing the world of Rayner’s script to life. From the crashing of the ocean and squawking, aggressive gulls to a particularly unfriendly octopus, Foxon ensures that The Rotting Deep is an aural treat for the listener, as well as heightening the drama and tension with a suitably spooky score.
Overall, The Rotting Deep doesn’t set the world on fire plot-wise, but it’s engagingly told and is a great introduction to Hebe Harrison: the Sixth Doctor’s latest companion. A great start to the boxset.
2. “The Tides of the Moon” by Joshua Pruett
For her first trip in the TARDIS, the Doctor takes Hebe to the Moon thousands of years in the past, when it was covered in a vast ocean. There, they encounter the amphibious Gilleans, who live in fear of the monstrous Sheega, and whose lives are about to be turned upside down by the Earth’s gravitational pull. As Hebe and Mel fall in with one of the locals, the Doctor must fight to save the Gilleans from the Sheega, from the Earth… and from themselves.
The Tides of the Moon is another fairly standard Doctor Who story, but, once again, thanks to some strong character work, that’s not really too much of a problem. Joshua Pruett gives us some very compelling material indeed for Hebe, putting a focus on the ways in which she, as an outsider, reacts to the Gilleans and how her responses may not always be appropriate, or in line with her personal values. This is really thought-provoking stuff the likes of which we haven’t seen in a new companion’s debut TARDIS trip before, and is the best part of the episode.
The plot itself is simple and easy to follow, though the cliffhanger to the first episode is a little weak, and the second half is far less strong than the first. The build-up is well-done, but sadly the climax falls a little flat. Nevertheless, the guest characters are well-written and performed, with Sam Stafford‘s Wulk being particularly impressive.
Overall, another more conventional Doctor Who story but one which, thanks to Pruett’s strong grasp of character, claims the title of Water Worlds‘ best episode.
3. “Maelstrom” by Jonathan Morris
On the archipelago world of Velucia, the TARDIS trio encounter a group of nomads whose bodies are vessels for a collection of consciousnesses held in a mind-drive… and are immediately requisitioned as fresh meat! With Mel’s body having been taken over, and the Doctor and Hebe investigating the mysterious (and dangerous) Maelstrom, the team’s adventures on Velucia are about to be very chaotic indeed.
Maelstrom is probably the strongest story in Water Worlds in terms of plot, packed with lots of really interesting ideas. Unfortunately, however, it doesn’t have quite the same level of character writing or performance as in the previous stories; the guest cast are mostly quite lifeless, while Hebe doesn’t get as much exploration as before. It’s great to hear Bonnie Langford in a dual role here, but even that isn’t given as much focus as you might think.
Overall, a strong story conceptually, but one that suffers from being a touch overlong, and having less focus on its characters than its predecessors.
While none of the stories contained within will set the world on fire, Water Worlds is a strong boxset overall, giving us three solid Doctor Who adventures with the Sixth Doctor and his companions. Ruth Madeley makes a powerful debut as Hebe Harrison, bringing to life all of the thought-provoking material which comes with having a wheelchair-user as a companion and sharing a strong rapport with Colin Baker and Bonnie Langford. This, alongside Steve Foxon‘s truly excellent sound design and music, is the strongest part of the set. Recommended.
Water Worlds is available on CD or as a download from http://www.bigfinish.com