The TARDIS team expands as the Sixth Doctor, Mel and Hebe return in Purity Undreamed: a new audio boxset from Big Finish Productions! Hebe, played by Ruth Madeley, made her debut earlier this year in Water Worlds (review here), which was an interesting, if a little by the books, introduction to Doctor Who‘s first wheelchair-user companion. Now, this new TARDIS trio are joined by new faces as they encounter Hebe’s best friend Elise and her husband Ron, as well as anthropologist Professor Patricia McBride, in three new audio stories set on Earth and revolving around humanity and its future. Read on for our thoughts!
1. “The Mindless Ones” by Paul Magrs
After Hebe receives an urgent message from her best friend Elise, the Doctor takes the TARDIS back to present-day Sheffield to investigate. While the Doctor and Mel explore the futuristic Mindless Facility, which promises to change its clients for the better, Hebe discovers that Elise has undergone a worrying transformation and vows to put things right. But with the Doctor under the influence of the maleveolent Mr Betterment, will his companions, and their new friend Professor McBride, manage to save the day?
Following two adventures on alien worlds, The Mindless Ones brings the TARDIS team back to Earth in a pretty standard mind control tale, with no real plot twists or exciting new ideas to speak of. The entire story is pretty much just people talking in rooms; there are no action sequences whatsoever, nor are there any particularly interesting character interactions to justify the lack of excitement. The Doctor and Mel are weirdly inactive throughout, while Hebe seems oddly placid even when she’s investigating strange goings-on, meaning the whole story takes on a listless, muted quality.
This is our introduction to a number of characters who recur throughout the boxset, with writer Paul Magrs introducing us to Hebe’s best friend Elise and her husband Ron, and the celebrated anthropologist Professor Patricia McBride. Elise and Ron, played by Cherylee Houston and Toby Hadoke respectively, are under the control of the villainous Mr Betterment (a strong performance from Paul Herzberg) for much of the story, so we don’t really get too much of a feel for them at all. On the other hand, Professor McBride makes a great first impression, with Imogen Stubbs‘ perfectly capturing her intelligence, sarcasm and ambition to make a difference.
Overall, this isn’t a bad story, but it’s certainly nothing more than average, with nothing really standing out in terms of plot, character or execution. A pedestrian start to the boxset.
2. “Reverse Engineering” by Jonathan Morris
When Professor McBride visits a cutting-edge scientific institute in Sweden, run by her old friend Killian Holm, she makes a startling discovery, and calls in the Doctor, Hebe and Mel. Holm claims to be doing good, offering to restore youth to his wealthy clients in an attempt to make humanity better. But with neanderthals running around the place and an alien body in his basement, is Holm to be trusted? And what will happen when Professor McBride learns the truth about the Doctor, Mel, Hebe and their travels in time and space?
In the last boxset in this series, we had three consecutive episodes set on water worlds, which was a bit samey, sure, but at least the stories were different enough. In this boxset, however, we are treated to two consecutive episodes whose storylines are so similar it’s beyond belief. Mysterious institute? Check! Amoral scientist? Check! Poorly-developed alien race who are barely in the story? Check! Hebe and Mel sidelined in favour of Professor McBride? Check! Even the cliffhangers are identical, just with different characters involved. I mean come ON!
Now, as its title suggests, this boxset has a clear anthropological theme, focusing on various villains as they attempt to change humanity for the better. It’s a bit ridiculous, however, to have two near-identical storylines one after the other like this. Reverse Engineering could have been a good story, in isolation, but placed directly after The Mindless Ones like this, it just feels like a retread of familiar ground. Having finished the entire boxset and heard its arc come to fruition, I get what Jacqueline Rayner and Robert Valentine, producer and script editor of the range respectively, were intending by putting these episodes back to back, but surely there was a better way of doing this than boring the listener with two such similar stories in a row?
Overall, a potentially interesting story hampered by its short runtime, some poor guest casting choices and its massive similarity in plot and setting to The Mindless Ones.
3. “Chronomancer” by Robert Valentine
For her first trip in the TARDIS, the Doctor takes Professor McBride to Sheffield in the future, where she is overwhelmed by the ways in which humanity has changed and, indeed, stayed the same. Returning to the present day, the TARDIS crew encounter heroic Chronomancer Tannus Vallon, who is in pursuit of time criminal Khavûl. Can the team help Vallon retrieve a dangerous temporal artefact before Khavûl does? And when hidden prejudices come to light, what horrors might the future hold?
Chronomancer is, without a doubt, the strongest story in this boxset, though it’s still very average. The main storyline about Vallon and Khavûl is genuinely interesting, with some lovely fresh ideas at its heart, yet it fizzles out by the end of the first part and its momentum isn’t quite recaptured in the second. Again, this is because so much of this story is just the characters sitting around and talking; instead of actually hunting for Vallon’s lost artefact, the gang just chat until they miraculously realise where it is! By the time the plot actually kicks in again, there’s only fifteen minutes left in the episode, and most of that is given over to a coda setting up the next boxset. Sigh.
Once again, the character work here is minimal, with Hebe and Mel being sidelined for pretty much the entire story. Cherylee Houston‘s Elise returns here, but she’s just as thinly-sketched as in her debut, though she does get to play a slightly more significant role in the plot this time. Similarly, the new characters Vallon and Khavûl aren’t really characters at all, but rather plot functions; we learn next to nothing about who they are as people, and yet are expected to care about them come the story’s resolution. Baffling!
Where this story succeeds is with the character of Professor McBride, whose small arc in the previous two stories comes to a head here in a fascinating way. There’s a particular scene between Colin Baker and Imogen Stubbs towards the end of part one that really made me sit up and pay attention; it takes us into very new territory for Doctor Who, and I’m genuinely excited to see where this storyline goes in the next boxset.
Overall, Chronomancer is an improvement on the previous two stories, but it’s still nothing special, overcrowded with underdeveloped characters and suffering from a very weak plot. Its one saving grace is the character of Professor McBride, whose arc I’m looking forward to hearing unfold next May.
If I had to describe Purity Undreamed in one word, it would be ‘frustrating’ because, while it has all the makings of a strong boxset, it fails at pretty much every turn. While the last boxset, Water Worlds, perfectly set up Ruth Madeley‘s Hebe and her relationship with the Doctor and Mel, the character is woefully underused here, overshadowed by Professor McBride and her (admittedly very interesting) arc. Colin Baker‘s usually bombastic Doctor is passive, Mel is so redundant poor Bonnie Langford barely gets anything to do and Hebe’s much talked-about best friend Elise is a complete nonentity both in writing and performance. What a disappointment! Here’s hoping that the next boxset in this series, due out in May, takes a turn for the better, with more captivating stories and less sidelining of the main characters. Poor.
The Sixth Doctor Adventures: Purity Undreamed is available on CD or as a download from http://www.bigfinish.com