Review by Jacob Licklider
My first Big Finish Audio Drama was Storm Warning, it was 2014, and Big Finish had at some point previously put the first fifty main range on sale for $2.99. Charlotte Pollard was my first companion and now, twenty years later, Big Finish are releasing Charlotte Pollard: The Further Adventuress to commemorate India Fisher’s Charley Pollard and taking the Eighth Doctor back to his early days. Paul McGann is clearly having a blast in all four stories, giving life to an Eighth Doctor unblemished by the loss of friends or the Time War, something which we haven’t seen since Big Finish revisited the Lucie Miller era in 2019. Whenever they decide to revisit this version of the Eighth Doctor, McGann breathes a new life into the character and reuniting him with India Fisher helps the nostalgia of that era bleed into the tone of each of the stories. None of the stories are particularly dark or disturbing, they all at least reference the arc of the time that Charley Pollard should have been killed on the R-101, but most importantly they allow two friends a chance to perform together for the first time in nearly a decade since the 50th Anniversary in The Light at the End.
Alan Barnes who created Charley in Storm Warning opens the set with The Mummy Speaks! which begins with an intriguing, 1800s style romp where the Doctor and Charley find themselves in France at the Carnaval de Paris, history that Charley’s parents would have lived through. They come across Cagliostro, a man presenting Khaset, a 4,000 year old Egyptian mummy who is able to speak. Charley and the Doctor both immediately attempt to get to the bottom of why this mummy can speak and quickly ascertain that he is in pain and must be freed. Once freed, the story then goes completely off the rails, but in a good way. This is one that listeners are going to want to experience for themselves but I will say it involves crossdressing, a gorilla who is (and I quote) fond of K-Pop (and that someone clearly made Alan Barnes write out at the end), and a cyborg. The exclamation mark in Barnes’ title is doing quite a bit of heavy lifting and it cannot encompass the brilliant insanity of the script. Cyril Nri guests as Khaset, the mummy, and his performance shines with nuance and grace through several layers of voice filter. There is this range as the story develops and Nri has to be the one to hold it together and sell to the audience just what has been happening, along with John Banks as Cagliostro. The second half in particular changes location quite a bit, though it does mostly stay on Earth in this time period so it doesn’t come too big for a single hour story. Finally, Ken Bentley’s direction (sublime as always) brings Joe Kraemer’s almost orchestral score pontificate the action. This installment in particular is one of Kraemer’s best and it is very nice that the music suite is included in this release. The Mummy Speaks! opens the set with a bang and sets the bar incredibly high for the rest of the stories. 10/10.
The second story is perhaps more reserved, helping the listener ease into the set with the idea that these are not going to be the same. Lisa McMullin pens Eclipse a story on a jungle colony where colonists are threatened, but not necessarily in danger, from a species of moths, an eclipse being the collective noun for a group of moths. McMullin’s script is one that attempts a lot in its hour runtime, almost too much. There’s a moment near the end where an attempt is made to examine the fact that the people of today have to take responsibility for the past, although the current situation is technically not their fault. This is presented as if it is the capstone of the story, which has been doing a good piece on environmentalism and what happens when resources are used, building to some brilliant body horror as nature and this planet finds its way to combat the invaders (the evil ones) and ends on an oddly horrific note with this implication that the body horror situation could begin to happen to Charley and the Doctor. The sound design here from Steve Foxon, his only episode on the set as the other stories are done brilliantly by Toby Hrycek-Robinson, Joe Kraemer, and Naomi Clarke, but it’s Foxon who delights in the cracking of bone and rending of flesh that body horror provides. This is a scene similar to things that have happened on television but on audio Foxon gets away with a lot more because it is just audio. The only thing bringing this down is the confused messaging, something that McMullin could have worked out had this story been allowed to continue after the two episodes it was allotted, and the plot itself being a touch standard. 7/10.
The Slaying of the Writhing Mass could be described as Eddie Robson’s love letter to cosmic horror without doing any of the horror part involved in cosmic horror. The plot here is essentially the Doctor and Charley finding themselves unravelling a mystery about the writhing mass, a thing that was destroyed by a legendary hero in a time near the end of the known universe. What’s interesting is the only thing getting the Doctor and Charley into the plot is a distress signal which ends with them being stuck in a queue of time travellers attempting to watch the slaying of the writhing mass. This is a story with an odd tone, mainly from not following cosmic horror tropes yet still having an off-putting atmosphere whenever the mass is brought up. The Doctor and Charley are separated and come to points of the mystery in parallel while people in charge of maintaining the Web of Time surrounding this event end up attempting to stop, and then eventually help, and then slay the mass themselves. Robson takes the story and shifts it with a deft hand into a story about paradoxes and how legends of time travelling civilisations almost have to be built on paradoxes and misinformation, like any legend but dialled up to eleven due to the nature of time travel. The eventual solution to this one is quite clever and Fisher gets to have a lot of fun as Charley playing around with the idea that she might be the one to save the day and be part of the legend. It’s not quite perfect, having students as a large part of the supporting cast is an interesting choice and feels random for the sake of random, but it’s performed well and incredibly engaging. 9/10.
I’m going to say something controversial, despite Big Finish often touting it as one of their best releases, I’m not the biggest fan of Sword of Orion. Sure, it’s the first Big Finish story to bring back the Cybermen but as a story it’s one that is eclipsed by stories like Spare Parts and The Silver Turk. It’s a standard story. But because Charlotte Pollard: The Further Adventuress celebrates 20 years, Nicholas Briggs was commissioned for a sequel to Sword of Orion in Heart of Orion. Luckily, instead of bringing back the Cybermen into the android/human conflict, Briggs just takes the setting post-Sword of Orion and uses the story to explore the Garazone system and the actual conflict. Briggs examines the concept of the Turing Test, with the androids explicitly stated as able to pass the aforementioned test and be considered alive. The idea is that while this is a war, they come from a genuinely good place which makes for an interesting plot point. What actually ends up bringing down Heart of Orion is something in the marketing, Briggs wrote this with the twist that Michelle Livingstone’s Deeva Jansen was returning, but the Big Finish news piece announcing this set plastered it front and centre. This makes the first half of the story which ends on that cliffhanger where she is revealed to be active, feel a lot like waiting for things to get going, even with Briggs’ rather tight script. It’s a story that shouldn’t work, but honestly does just through some great dialogue and world-building. 8/10.
Overall, Charlotte Pollard: The Further Adventuress’ biggest problem is it’s weird title (look at it, it’s a bad pun, the only type of good pun). It’s four adventures which bring back a bygone era going from comedy, to camp, to horror, to political commentary, all through a brilliant cast spearheaded by McGann and Fisher, amazing sound design and music, and Ken Bentley’s always stellar direction. 8.5/10.
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