Hot on the heels of their last boxset of adventures, What Lies Inside? (review here), the Eighth Doctor, Liv and Helen return for three more trips through space and time in Connections. The new format of more standalone, character-driven stories for this TARDIS team proved a step in the right direction with What Lies Inside?, but will that trend continue here? Read on to find out!
1. “Here Lies Drax” by John Dorney
The Doctor, Liv and Helen are invited to the funeral of his old school friend Drax. But who should turn up at the funeral but Drax himself? Soon, the TARDIS team are fleeing for their lives, as the mysterious Quantum Assassin sends his agents after Drax. What has Drax done to anger the Assassin? And what lies inside the parcel that he seeks?
Here Lies Drax is the kind of story the Eighth Doctor hasn’t had very many of recently: an out-and-out romp full of colourful characters and wacky twists. The closest story I can think of to this is The Mummy Speaks! from this year’s The Further Adventuress (review here) which, I have to say, was a far better attempt at this kind of story than what John Dorney gives us here. The problem with Here Lies Drax is that it’s both derivative and repetitive; there are very few new ideas here, and the twists, while game-changing, aren’t exactly difficult to guess before they happen.
One highlight is Shane Richie as Drax; what an inspired bit of casting! He’s quite literally the perfect actor to take on this role, perfectly succeeding at making the character both charming and shady at the same time. The rest of the guest cast- Jeff Rawle, Nina Wadia and Hugh Ross– do a good job with what they’re given, but they’re really not given a lot, which is such a shame given they’re all such excellent actors.
Overall, this is a perfectly entertaining story, but it’s undeniably the weakest of this first batch of new adventures for the Eighth Doctor, lacking the interesting concepts and/or emotional depth of the other four stories in this rebooted range.
2. “The Love Vampires” by James Kettle
The TARDIS lands aboard a space station hanging in the shadow of a dying star… a space station under siege. Only three occupants remain, and they’re being haunted by faces from their past: long-lost loves who have returned to drain away their life. As the Doctor, Liv and Helen fight to save the lives of those onboard, they too must face those they have loved and lost, and confront the shadows of their past.
The Love Vampires is a story with a simple central concept, albeit one that is mined for every ounce of character drama possible. It’s strong stuff, by and large, with some delicious material for the main TARDIS trio, though this doesn’t quite offset the languid pace of the script, which can sometimes leave the listener longing for a bit of action and excitement.
Paul McGann shines here, as the Doctor is confronted with his first love: a Time Lady called the Realist. Now that’s quite the concept to throw into a story, but James Kettle handles it sensitively, and things aren’t quite as clear-cut as they seem. Meanwhile, we meet Liv and Helen’s first loves, and learn some surprising things about their characters. Needless to say, Nicola Walker and Hattie Morahan handle the material with aplomb. It’s particularly nice to hear more about Helen’s past ahead of the next story, which focuses on her in great detail.
The guest cast here is strong, even if the characters they portray aren’t necessarily the most developed. Holly Jackson-Walters is a standout in her dual role as crew member Fifteen and Helen’s first love Jean, forming a strong rapport with Paul McGann and Hattie Morahan in particular.
Overall, this is a strong, character-driven story, full of tantalising revelations about the TARDIS trio. It’s just a shame there’s so little action, or else this could definitely have got a higher score.
3. “Albie’s Angels” by Roy Gill
While tracking down a temporal anomaly in modern-day Soho, Helen is flung backwards in time by a Weeping Angel and encounters her long-lost brother Albie. As the Doctor and Liv fight to save their friend, Helen and Albie flee from the stone assassins pursuing them, forging the relationship they never had. But when the whole world struggles to accept you for who you are, is there any hope of a happy ending?
Roy Gill has done it again. Of the five scripts he’s written for Big Finish in 2022, three of them are in my top 10 stories of the year, a feat no other writer has managed in the four years I’ve run Who Review. Albie’s Angels is one of those three: an emotional, character driven story delving into Helen’s past and exploring what it meant to be gay at a time when such a thing was illegal.
Hattie Morahan gives her strongest performance yet, bouncing off Barnaby Jago‘s Albie in such a way that it’s hard to believe this is their first story together. Helen’s closing monologue in particular is a triumph of a performance, heartbreaking and uplifting in equal measure, and sure to bring a tear to the eye. Jago himself is similarly excellent in his role, making the listener root for Albie right from his very first scene. I did find it odd, however, that Helen’s own sexuality wasn’t discussed here, given what we learnt about her in the previous episode; I think this would have been the cherry on top of an already brilliant story.
The music and sound design on this one are impeccable. It always impresses me how the team at Big Finish are able to bring the Weeping Angels, one of the most visual villains in Doctor Who, to life on audio, and sound designer Benji Clifford excels at that here, crafting some pretty spooky scenes. Meanwhile, Jamie Robertson‘s music perfectly underscores the emotional moments in this story, with the Song for Helen being a particular highlight.
Albie’s Angels is a triumph from start to finish: emotional, profound and full of lovely performances. A few tweaks, and I’d have scored it a 10/10.
Though a little more inconsistent than What Lies Inside?, Connections once again proves that giving the Eighth Doctor and friends more standalone adventures was the right move. From a fast-paced futuristic romp to two slower, more character driven stories, Connections has a delightful sense of variety, which ensures that Paul McGann, Nicola Walker and Hattie Morahan give varied and interesting performances throughout the set, and allows for some really great development for their characters. Highly recommended.
Connections is available on CD or as a download from http://www.bigfinish.com
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