Back in January, Big Finish began their celebration of the Fifth Doctor’s fortieth anniversary with the release of Forty 1 (review here), which saw our favourite Time Lord face off against Cybermen and Ice Warriors while being thrown across his own timeline by a mysterious force. Now Forty 2 concludes this storyline with a six-part audio epic: The Auton Infinity by Tim Foley. Read on for our thoughts!
The Doctor, Tegan and Turlough arrive in the middle of a UNIT training exercise, and bump into old friend Brigadier Alistair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart, who is overseeing proceedings. Soon, however, it transpires that the fake aliens UNIT is supposed to be fighting against are the genuine article: Autons sent by the Nestene Consciousness! Why have the Nestenes chosen this time and place to invade? Who is the mysterious Prodigal? Why is the Master lurking behind the scenes? And for what nefarious reason is the Doctor being sent up and down his own timeline?
In Forty 1, Big Finish rather bizarrely chose to celebrate the Fifth Doctor’s fortieth anniversary by putting him in a sequel to Tomb of the Cybermen, a Second Doctor story, and by pitting him against the Ice Warriors, who he never met on TV. At first glance, Forty 2 seems to continue this strange trend, giving us a six-part story (a staple of the first four Doctors, but never the Fifth) featuring the Autons (who he didn’t meet on TV either).
Thankfully, however, The Auton Infinity ends up being a far better celebration of the Fifth Doctor’s era than either of the stories in Forty 1, bringing in characters like the Master and the Brigadier, and directly referencing the events of other Fifth Doctor stories, like Earthshock, Frontios, The Five Doctors and Mawdryn Undead. The plot itself is fairly pedestrian for the first third of the story, seeing UNIT begin to realise they’re under attack from both the Autons and the Master as they prepare for a training exercise. The Doctor and friends don’t do a whole lot in these first couple of episodes, just sort of stumbling from incident to incident and interacting with various UNIT personnel until they realise what’s going on. I’ll admit, by the end of part two I had no idea how writer Tim Foley was going to stretch out this story for another four episodes!!
Things pick up in part three, however, when the team find themselves in a strange, Auton-infested castle floating in space. Here, we get some really intriguing backstory for the Nestene Consciousness (kudos to Foley for doing something fresh with them!) and some lovely character moments, as the Doctor and Tegan discuss the loss of Adric and the Brigadier and Turlough mull over the events of Mawdryn Undead while investigating their new surroundings. The final three parts see events on Earth and in the castle collide, as the Doctor and friends learn just what the Master is planning, and uncover the terrible truth about the Nestene Consciousness. We also learn why the Doctor has been jumping around in time, and the explanation is sufficiently surprising and results in quite a touching ending to the Forty storyline.
Peter Davison is on top form here, not only getting to play the Fifth Doctor we know and love, but also getting some fresh and exciting material to really test his limits as an actor. His performance in the final part is particularly impressive; there’s a particular scene where Davison was the only actor present, and yet still managed to give me chills and bring a tear to my eye. Janet Fielding also gets some nice emotional scenes throughout the story and, while Mark Strickson is a little sidelined as Turlough, he puts in a strong performance nonetheless.
The main guest star here is Jon Culshaw, who plays the Master, the Brigadier and Kamelion! Good grief! As usual, he does a great job at recreating the voice of the late, great Nicholas Courtney, sharing some wonderfully spiky scenes with Mark Strickson‘s Turlough as the Brigadier reunites with his former pupil for the first time, and his Kamelion is a suitable recreation of the character’s stilted, slightly sinister tones. Where his performance falters, however, is as the Master; while his purring, sneering impression of Anthony Ainley works fine in a narrated story (like the Short Trips reviewed here), it’s simply not good enough in a full-cast setting like this. I honestly think it’s time Big Finish properly recast the character, as this Master was such a huge part of the multiple Doctors’ eras, and Culshaw’s Ainley impression just doesn’t cut it for me.
Also featuring here is Juliet Aubrey as Prodigal, an Auton who has, for reasons we discover as the story goes on, achieved a sense of individuality. Her motives are fresh and exciting, expanding the lore of the Autons and the Nestene in a way that no other story really has before, and Aubrey gives a strong- and at times affecting- performance in the role.
Sound Design and Music
Lee Adams is on sound design duty here, and crafts a really effective soundscape for the story. The highlights have got to be his incorporation of the original Auton gun and sphere effects from the 70s and the sound of the Nestene Consciousness’s screeches from Rose: a truly iconic set of sounds which really help to signal the presence of these terrifying foes, which is especially important given that they’re mostly non-verbal villains. Meanwhile, Howard Carter‘s burbling electronic score, while a little repetitive at times, is dramatic and effective.
Forty 2 is undeniably a far better celebration of the Fifth Doctor’s era than Forty 1, incorporating key characters and storylines from Peter Davison‘s three years in the role and expanding on them in meaningful ways. The Autons and the Master are given some great new things to do as villains, with Tim Foley making sure their returns aren’t simply fan-service, while Peter Davison impresses in his portrayal of the Fifth Doctor’s more vulnerable sides. The story is perhaps a touch overlong, and some of the side characters seem superfluous, but all in all this is a strong release. Recommended.
Forty 2 is available on CD or as a download from http://www.bigfinish.com