Review by Jacob Licklider
It was an interesting announcement that not only was Jacob Dudman stepping away from playing the Eleventh and Twelfth Doctors, but also was being given four, three-episode box sets for the Eleventh Doctor with a new companion and essentially a fourth series set between The Snowmen and The Bells of St. John as the Doctor is searching for Clara Oswald to find out just what her deal is. The premise of this series essentially comes from a moment of disconnect between the two episodes, The Bells of St. John opening with the Doctor being a hermit essentially waiting for Clara to call him but the point of The Snowmen is reinforcing the idea that the Doctor shouldn’t be alone. Of course, it should be noted that adding of extra stories from Big Finish Productions do not negate issues with television episodes despite this being designed to address those issues as Big Finish Productions, while wonderful, are written after the fact separate from whatever the showrunners of Doctor Who are intending. The first of the four sets for this series of The Eleventh Doctor Chronicles is Geronimo!, with behind the scenes interviews implying that a two week period in May 2022 was used to record this and the three future sets which are set to be released between now and 2024. Geronimo! and the second installment, All of Time and Space, indicate that while these sets have a story arc, the arc of the series of sets doesn’t have an umbrella title and the individual titles are coming across as just a touch on the generic side. That being said, I don’t really know what I’d title this set to make it stand out outside of the Eleventh Doctor’s catchphrase.
Joining the Eleventh Doctor in these adventures is Valerie Lockwood, played by Safiyya Ingar, a cyborg engineer from the 54th century, introduced in the opening story, The Inheritance by Alfie Shaw. As a quick note, the set is ambiguous as to Valerie’s gender identity, but as Ingar is non-binary and uses they/them pronouns, this review will be following suit for the character. The Inheritance as a story is a biting commentary on capitalism and the idea of rampant consumption, all about a research rig in the far future which is owned by a corporation with CEO Arabella Hendricks, played by Lara Lemon. This rig has an infection of an intelligent virus which kills those, painfully but quickly, who have too much money and this infection could easily spread to the rest of the Earth. Already the future doesn’t look bright with the planet Earth being under the rule of a corporation, but the virus itself allows Shaw to explore how deep capitalism can go. The inheritance of the title refers to the trend of monetary inheritance spreading the infection while victims die, with the first half of the episode really playing up the horror of the situation. The second half becomes closer to a police procedural with the Doctor and Valerie racing against the clock of Valerie’s mother, played wonderfully by Mandi Symonds, is going to be infected. Shaw also allows Dudman and Ingar to show the chemistry they have as performers, Valerie slipping nicely into the role of companion with spunk but the Moffat style companion is avoided by giving them a unique set of skills due to technological enhancements. Their knowledge of engineering is also used well here and throughout the set.
While the first story ends with a setup for a series long arc, using classic arc words and the explicit reveal that there is another Time Lord setting things up (place your bets now, with the similarities in setup between Valerie and Clara I’m guessing it’s Missy), the second story, Georgia Cook’s The House of Masks focuses in on character development and drama, looking at how the Doctor, Valerie, and the established side characters of this story deal with grief. This story was commissioned last to have a historical setting in the first set, taking the Doctor and Valerie to Venice in the 18th century due to a distress call that leads to a mysterious palace where masquerade revels for Carnivale are being held. This is an episode where Jamie Robertson’s score and Lee Adams’ sound design must be mentioned, there are points in the episode where the music and sound design become so quiet and subtle that a sense of unease is instilled in the listener. I won’t spoil just how the sound design and music selection (as there are cues from classical pieces here) are used, but when you listen it does such a good job of getting inside your brain and making you question things before the characters notice them. The reflection on grief with the Doctor and Valerie is also cathartic for both characters, really establishing how they work as a team through the classic scenario of separating them for their own contributions to the plot. The show, however, is stolen by Genevieve Gaunt as Lady Sicura, Gaunt bringing a level of class and aristocracy to proceedings to help sell the historical setting mainly through the strength of her performance. This is not a poor reflection of anyone else, just of some of the twists and turns that Nicholas Briggs as director chose for the rest of the cast to follow in line with Cook’s script. It’s a difficult trick to pull off, but it works wonderfully (again avoiding spoilers due to several twists and plot developments in the set that work really well if you don’t know what they are going in).
The set concludes with Rochana Patel providing The End, a story with a generic title but a premise that is perfect for replicating the best elements of the Steven Moffat era. Now, as a story it doesn’t really continue the plot of the series until the final few scenes as lead in to the next box set, but instead of falling into the trap of being early series filler like say The Curse of the Black Spot or A Town Called Mercy, it is integral to showing how the Doctor and Valerie work apart from one another. There are also hints as to what happened to the Earth at the end of The Inheritance, this episode being set 300 years after that one, though away from Earth. The setting is a supply freighter heading to Earth to provide a consignment of cows for livestock in an attempt to rejuvenate the population. This is a small detail (and one that does include the Doctor speaking cow, a trope I personally dislike though is used for some decent tension here), but it is one that I think really works from Patel to make the worldbuilding of this time period work, implying a lot about the rest of the galaxy/universe. Patel also makes the difficult story structure of The End work, dealing with two separate time loops being generated by time spiders, one where after arrival on the freighter the Doctor is attacked and is slowly dying, the other where Valerie is attacked and slowly dying. Each time loop has the surviving member discover the cure and eventually both come together to defeat the time spiders. It continues on the brilliant character work from the previous two releases and just works as a twist on the classic base under siege style story.
The Eleventh Doctor Chronicles: Geronimo! did it….It made me fall in love with a release headlined by my personal least favorite Doctor. Jacob Dudman and Safiyya Ingar are brilliant and get equal chance to shine and develop their characters in their own way. Each episode brings drama and interesting science fiction concepts, and the entire series is set up perfectly. If you were to purchase one run of this range, make it this one and bring on the next three box sets so we can see the heights this series can reach. 9/10.
Check out the rest of our Big Finish reviews!