REVIEW | The Ninth Doctor Adventures: Pioneers

After what seems like no time at all, the Ninth Doctor is back for his third series of audio adventures, which kicks off with Pioneers. In our review of the previous boxset, we felt that the series had become a little stale, refusing to switch up the one-and-done story structure or give Christopher Eccleston much material to get his teeth into, but I’m happy to report that this new set goes some way towards fixing that.

This is particularly evident in the opening story, The Green Gift by Roy Gill, which gives many listeners what they’ve been wanting since the series began back in 2021: the Ninth Doctor with a companion! For the first time in a long time, this Doctor doesn’t begin this adventure alone, with the delightful duo of Callen Lennox and Doyle from the previous boxset tagging along, still in search of a home after the events of Red Darkness.

Christopher Eccleston‘s performance is immediately elevated by the presence of these characters in the script, not only because having companions makes him feel that much more Doctor-ish, but because he shares such strong chemistry with Adam Martyn and Harki Bhambra, who play Callen and Doyle. Highlights include the opening scene, where he arrives on the Greenwood with his companions, and his confession that, after the Time War, he’s not yet ready to travel with other people full-time. It was definitely too much to hope that this team would stick around long-term, but I’m grateful that we’ve had at least another adventure with them. Who knows, maybe they’ll be back in the future?

If not, though, it’s hard to think of a better send-off for them, with both Callen and Doyle being served very well by Gill’s script. Martyn gets to play some lovely emotional moments, particularly between him and Maddison Bulleyment‘s Tay, while Bhambra is as charming as ever in his role as Doyle, a kind of modernised K-9 with a lot more personality.

Doyle’s similarity to K-9 isn’t the only kiss to Doctor Who‘s past in this story. Louise Jameson stars here as the fearsome Fiacra, and proves herself as one of Who’s most versatile performers, not only in the ways she differs her character from Leela, but in the way she effortlessly alters her performance as Gill’s script requires it. We also have the return of the giant maggots and BOSS from 1973, a slightly left-field choice, but ultimately an effective one which ties into the story’s themes perfectly.

This is a deceptive story, simple in plot, but teeming with lovely character moments and interesting themes. It’s one of those stories that’s so rich in these things that, when listening, you almost don’t want it to end. A strong opener.

Second up is Northern Lights by Robert Valentine. This is a more slow-paced affair, taking us to the Arctic, where the Doctor meets explorers Fridtjof Nansen (Ian Conningham) and Hjalmar Johansen (Gerard Kearns) and comes up against an alien force known as the Aurora. It’s an interesting, if sedate, historical which introduces us to two lesser-known figures, making up for its lack of action by adopting a more biographical feel than usual.

Where this story really succeeds is in its sound design, with Iain Meadows perfectly conjuring up the biting, icy landscape in which much of the adventure occurs. His work on the shifting, multi-voiced Aurora should also be applauded, complementing Ginnia Cheng‘s ethereal performance.

Last up is The Beautiful Game by Katharine Armitage, another historical which takes us to Manchester at the genesis of the English Football League. While the sci-fi side of the plot is entertaining, the events around which it’s set just aren’t that compelling; there isn’t any kind of interesting story about why the league began- no obstacles for anyone to overcome or intriguing historical figures- so it feels like this was written simply because Armitage likes football.

This story very much like a love letter to the sport, with lots of earnest speeches about why it’s so great, clunky metaphors about teams and winning and an obsessive alien who loves the game, but we never actually see (hear?) a football game or its impact on any of the characters, which seems awfully remiss. It’s like if Rosa had just described the climactic bus scene, or if The Witchfinders had never showed us a witch trial and instead just told us they were bad; there’s no denying football is hugely important, but why not show us instead of just talking about it for an hour?

Despite this, the cast is highly enjoyable to listen to, particularly Becky Wright, who gives an unhinged performance as the obsessive Strike, and Rachel Fenwick, whose character Daphne is the emotional core of the piece. Both of these characters help to highlight Victorian society’s attitude towards women, which is always a thought-provoking thing, but I can’t help wondering if this would have been a more interesting story had it tied that to the football theme a little more. An episode about women’s football in the Victorian era would have been genuinely novel, with some great emotional stakes, as opposed to the slightly dull events depicted here.

Overall, though this set starts with something a little different, by the end we’re back to the status quo: enjoyable but shallow one-and-done adventures with the Ninth Doctor. If you like that sort of thing, fine, but we’ve had almost thirty of these kinds of stories now; maybe it’s time to try something a little different? Christopher Eccleston is such a strong actor, it’s a shame his talents are being wasted on such repetitive material. Here’s hoping we’ll get something a bit more exciting next time.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Pioneers is available on CD or as a download from


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