Written by Cavan Gilbey
It’s that time of the year again where Eccleston and Big Finish bring us a fresh batch of adventures with the Ninth Doctor, a fact which still feels miraculous to this day. In previous sets we’ve had the Ninth Doctor face off against familiar foes, namely the Cybermen in a Dalek to Parting of the Ways style of progression, so here we have the Sontarans who feel like a natural fit for this Doctor given his Time War guilt. However where we deviate from those previous sets is in theming; in the first series of four sets in this range we saw thematic boxsets with three stories that represented the primary settings for RTD era narratives. But with series two we get boxsets, that while still thematically linked in their stories, focus on just story setting and explore as many avenues with it as possible. Back To Earth gave us three story set across Earth’s history so to contrast that Into The Stars sends beyond Earth to see life beyond the stars.
Space stories have always appealed to me more, not to knock historical settings as the inner history nerd within me still loves them but space has always been a greater avenue for surreal and wild creativity to come to the forefront. And that is true for this set especially as the set brings us peaceful war mongers, scent obsessed aristocrats and folklore come to life. Even if all the stories in this set don’t quite hit the mark, this set is well worth picking up just to see this Doctor explore ever stranger worlds.
The first story, Salvation Nine, is written by Timothy X Atack who penned the well received Planet of the End for the Respond To All Calls set. After the Doctor arrives on an outpost on the brink of destruction, he must aid a group of Sontarans who don’t exactly fit in with the reputation established by their species.The Sontarans have a bit of mixed reception in their modern form, often times being the butt of joke because they are too literal minded to understand different cultures or are just silly slapstick morons (see most Strax stories). So when I got stuck into this story and was immediately greeted by a comedy Sontaran, still played to perfection by Dan Starkey whose comic timing is brilliant in this story, I was wary to say the least. What I was not suspecting was to find the definitive Big Finish Sontaran story. The comedy, which is genuinely funny and plays upon a lot of elements of the Sontaran condition, really works at setting up the humanity of this outpost of Sontarans. They live a simple life tending to the gardens, mothering babies and growing old happily without the knowledge of war. There is a wonderful childlike naivety to them which the Doctor naturally falls in love with. But they are challenged with changing their nature if they are going to be saved; two of them have to enter a battlefield to kidnap a Sontaran commander and get a little bit too into the role at points. It’s a really well done nature vs nurture story, and Atack has some great dialogue about not letting the past define who you are now and how stereotypes damage communities trying to do their best.
Atack is one of Big Finish’s hidden gems, nearly everyone of his scripts knocks it out of the park and this is no exception. Funny and touching with a performance from Eccleston that effortlessly captures the Doctor’s hope and wonderment for these Sontarans, Salvation Nine is one to listen to as soon as humanly possibly.
Last of the Zetacene by James Kettle is next. Here the Doctor and the street-wise Nel have to navigate a ring of big game hunters and aristocrats to save the last of the Zetacene swine before it becomes yet another hunting trophy.
Despite touching on some very interesting themes regarding animal cruelty and the idea of aristocratic materialism being nothing more than a ‘look I have the nicest and rarest thing’ competition. I can’t help but feel like Kettle didn’t have much time to write the script for this set. There are very glaring pacing and narrative issues that prevent the story from movie along smoothly and without causing confusion, there were several times where I had to backtrack through the story just to check that I hadn’t missed anything only to find that certain elements have been glossed over. The beginning is the most clunky as we are very quickly introduced to the villains, the Doctor, some spiders and Nel all within the space of about four or five minutes. This makes it very difficult to keep track of who is doing what, especially with a story focused in action packed monster hunts and high stakes casino games (which are admittedly the most entertaining parts of the script).
There are just little bits missing that could have made this script so much better. Having the Doctor and Zetacene be more connected due to the last of the species conceit would have been poignant and given the Doctor a greater motive outside of vague motions of conservation. Having fewer but more developed villains who have deeper characterisation and just generically evil or gross-out humour focused. And perhaps the greatest offender of all; remove the spiders from the script. They turn up for two scenes and I can’t figure out what significance they have on the narrative outside of a Maureen O’Brien cameo, not that you can tell its her due to the sound design.
In a rare fumble from Kettle, we have a story that just doesn’t feel complete. What we have is a strong first draft, but far from a completed narrative.
The final story, Break the Ice by Tim Foley, has the Doctor meet with a group of cryogenic scientists who accidentally unleash the Last God of Winter into their research centre.
A classic base-under-siege story to wrap up the set, although Foley jazzes up the format brilliantly just as he did with The Gulf by shifting the focus to be on the characters rather than the action. The crowning achievement of Foley’s script is the character Fisk, portrayed by Thalissa Teixera, a scientist aboard the station who has to spend Christmas away from her wife and son while dealing with anxiety. A deeply sympathetic character who I really wish we’ll see again because Teixera and Foley work together to create a character whose mental health feels so real, the way her anxiety manifests itself in moments of terror where doubts begin to flood Fisk’s mind are arguably more frightening than Jack Frost’s machinations. Foley shows the duality of self-help and accepting the help of friends, with a wonderfully touching moment where Fisk’s wife installed a subroutine that will be there to talk to her and tell her how valued she is. The script is at its best in these emotional moments, especially at the end where the Doctor gives Fisk and her family a Christmas of their dreams. The chemistry between Teixera and Eccleston here is some of the best in the whole set and really tugged at my heart strings.
The rest of the story is somewhat traditional for the B.U.S formula but Foley has prove time and again that his work within this style never bores nor feels unoriginal, his characterisation always elevates B.U.S stories into something bigger and this story further helps solidify him as one of my favourite Big Finish writers.
Overall, Into The Stars proves that the Ninth Doctor Adventures improves from set to set despite a few hiccups. What started out as a fan dream has slowly become a range I’m sure has blown away the expectations of fans. This set in particular has some of the range’s best emotional and conceptual work, along side Eccleston’s best performances and side-cast chemistry. Sure the middle story doesn’t quite hit the mark, but that doesn’t stop this being one of the best Ninth Doctor sets to date.
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