Review by Jacob Licklider
The Lone Centurion was kind of a dark horse for Big Finish Productions, coming in under the radar with a premise of being a spin-off set in between The Pandorica Opens and The Big Bang, in Roman times with Rory trying to survive while guarding the Pandorica and Amy inside of it. Because of an already vague premise it meant that the writers could really do anything with the premise, the first volume being a three part miniseries in the Roman empire while The Lone Centurion: Camelot does what it says on the tin, a three part miniseries in Camelot. There is one overall issue with the set, it follows the same formula as the first set to the letter with the first story being mostly set up of the world ending with Rory in a position of power that he doesn’t quite want, the second being an interlude leading to an ending with Rory at a low point, and the third being the finale ending with a large set piece as a conclusion before Rory moves on to pastures new. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, formulas work for a reason and there are plenty of amazing stories that follow established formulas, but for a spin-off it isn’t something that can always be relied upon to the letter. Going forward Big Finish will have to mix things up if the want this spin-off to stay interesting. That isn’t to say the formula can’t be followed, it just needs to be mixed up a bit, especially if there is going to be a third box set. The Lone Centurion: Camelot also has an interesting setting, being mostly fictional and not really based on anything in history while doing three stories in a pure historical mood. There aren’t any science fiction elements outside of the Pandorica being a McGuffin that the villain of the set is after, the fact that Rory is an Auton. Some of the science seems a bit too advanced for the era, but there are no instances of magic or sorcery that you would expect from a King Arthur legend.
Alfie Shaw, more well known as a Big Finish producer, opens the range with a story that sets this tone immediately in The Once and Future Nurse. This one is essentially watching Rory slowly use his future knowledge to carefully save lives as an apprentice to a physician, played by Barnaby Edwards, who has a tendency to amputate to restore the humours. He saves Sir Lancelot through stitches, who subsequently falls in love with Rory which is an interesting example of courtly love playing out. This does have the side effect of playing into a slightly problematic trope involving the portrayal of LGBT characters. Shaw seems to want to subvert the story of Lancelot and Guinevere which is fine, but playing it up with a straight character who is oblivious feels somewhat regressive. It’s telling that Tim Foley and Kate Thorman who wrote the other two stories in the set play this aspect down with Lancelot being more an admirer of Rory with somewhat less focus on the love element. It also feels out of place that Lancelot is then poisoned leading to Rory being put in a position where he must save his life after a sequence of torture. The way the story ends is incredibly clever with Merlin being set up as the main villain in search of the Pandorica who uses the torture sequence to get what he wants and not extract the poison “Rory” used on Lancelot. It’s a fun climax and the way Rory solves the situation works really well. The ending also has Rory knighted putting him into a position of power once again that he doesn’t want. It’s a solid start to the set with that rocky theme bringing it down slightly. 8/10.
The Glowing Warrior is next from Tim Foley which is the one episode of the set that does a more straightforward retelling of an Arthurian legend. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is homaged starting at a Christmas Feast with the arrival of a knight glowing green to issue a challenge, the challenge being taken up by one knight (in this case Rory). The challenge takes the knight to far off lands with trials to test their character, before a final twist revealing that there never was any danger. Foley is intentionally riffing and giving things a subtly comic slant, with Rory and Lancelot as a double act, picking up an adventuring party, and the eventual culprit being something quite mundane leading to madness. Rory as our point of view here plays on Arthur Darvill’s strengths as the straight man to all of the comedy being played around with around him. There are also scenes added to differentiate it from the poem quite a bit and facilitate the comedy, starting with an autopsy of the Green Knight who falls over dead before issuing the challenge, and the ending having Rory once again saving Lancelot’s life. It’s the highlight of the set with Foley’s script accentuating why these types of stories continue to be told and the parody continuing throughout without ever becoming farce. 9/10.
The set closes with The Last King of Camelot by Kate Thorman which shows the last battle between Arthur and Mordred, but also Merlin who is evil in this rendition and is perhaps the weakest of the set. Mordred is perhaps a non-entity despite being played by the great Tom Alexander. King Arthur, played throughout the set by Sam Stafford, has had an issue with being portrayed as a man child because of the idea of playing myths and legends as not as they seem. It’s been fine for the other two because he’s been a fairly minor character, but here while he’s centerstage the insufferable nature of the character, something intentionally done by all three writers, is brought too the forefront where he is essentially a lazy coward. Luckily Luyanda Unati Lewis-Nyawo’s Guinevere is much more interesting and ends up being the real protagonist of the episode, but for the first third Arthur’s whining becomes unbearable. The ending is what really brings this story out of the issues of characterisation, and the fact that Merlin being the villain while interesting, devolves here to stock villainy which is a shame. The ending has powerhouse performances from Darvill, Lewis-Nyawo, and Hugh Skinner as Lancelot that ends the set on a high. There is something subtly shifting in Scott Handcock’s direction right at the end to hit a happy note with an underlying melancholy of Rory leaving somewhere he could have belonged. It makes the set feel like it isn’t overstaying its welcome. 7/10.
Overall, The Lone Centurion: Camelot continues to take a spin-off with a vague guideline and centre three stories around a setting outside of the more science fiction bent stories Doctor Who typically produces. There are a couple of tropes and cliches, especially in the first story that falls close to being problematic and one weak characterisation in the finale in particular but with Arthur Darvill leading a great cast through some interesting interpretations of classic legends not being afraid to be irreverent in places, it makes for a great listen. 8/10.
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