Review by Cavan Gilbey
I am by no means a Rose Tyler fan. She isn’t me least favourite companion, not by a long shot, but she isn’t one I’m really that enamoured with. So when Big Finish got Piper back to do some audios with Tennant a few years ago it took me a while to get round to them, I wish I had gotten to them early as Infamy of the Zaross and Sword of the Chevalier are both tons of fun. Now I haven’t heard the first Rose Tyler boxset, so I had very little to go on when I went into this second instalment in the series. I wish I had heard that first set because I think Other Worlds might be my favourite spin-off release of the year, a fact I am extremely surprised by because I didn’t think the Rose Tyler boxset would offer three nuanced and impressive dramas which handle some really mature topics like parental estrangement and government crack downs on protests. I’m going to say up front that you should buy this boxset now, I had an overwhelmingly positive time with this set and I can see a re-listen coming quite soon.
Saltwater by Alison Winter opens up the set and sees Rose sent to a universe where the salt from the oceans is mysteriously vanishing. Battleships are sinking (which is brought to horrifying life by Kraemer and Kraemer’s sound design) and global tensions begin to rise; nuclear war is looking more and more probable as world governments grow frightened. The UK has entered martial law with protest groups monitored and shut down and all media is ruthlessly censored to hide the dangers. An alternate Clive knows aliens are behind this, but can Rose convince the president of the UK to move towards peace before its too late.
This is a really brilliant and mature script from Winter. With a setting where the Iron Curtain never fell and the Cold War still rages on, Winter’s story has this really melancholic tone, you really get a sense that this world is decaying socially and that unity is so far from the population’s minds. Rose’s initial shock that the world is so willing to just let nuclear war happen, in fact the world governments seem very open to simply just blasting the competition out of the question. It’s the type of contemporary script that would have felt so at home in Series 4, with its nuanced political intrigue paired alongside some really great world building and moments of comedy. Perhaps Winter’s crowning moment in this script comes near the conclusion, the triumphant realisation that aliens in question communicate via light not sound. It’s genuinely nerve wracking as they have to fire a glorified laser pointer into the sky based on very loose guess work. The moment that it works, you feel like the world is genuinely healing, communication has won and maybe the world can begin to work together to break out of this paranoid state. But Winter’s doesn’t sugar coat this, revealing that this Earth is still fated to die in five years time. It’s a nihilistic ending for sure, but there is that wonderful bittersweet edge to it where they would have at least had a peaceful five years before their world dies as well as nicely foreshadowing the Reality Bomb’s effects from The Stolen Earth and Journeys End.
The cast all do a marvellous job here. Particular props to Mark Benton pulling double duties as the Clives. He gets some really funny dialogue between himself, playing it wonderfully and capturing the specific characteristics of the universes respective Clives. He and Jackie actually have some good chemistry as they work together back at Dimension Canon HQ, Jackie’s natural charisma playing off nicely alongside Clive’s slightly awkward tendency to just not explain things well. I was also a big fan of Nicola Blackman’s performance as Reverend Georgina Stacey, she’s introduced really nicely as she feels for Rose and helps her get to grips with the fact her parents were assassinated in this universe. She’s got a really calming quality within the story, feeling like a strong mediator between Rose and the President.
This is a really strong opener to a boxset that I really did not think would be this complex with its themes and ethical problems. Often times feeling more like Star Trek with its greater focus on grounded moral issues than the more fantastical elements of Doctor Who, I unashamedly loved this story and am pleased to say the reast of the set maintains this high level of complexity and quality.
Now Is The New Dark by AK Benedict is up next and follows our contemporary setting with something a bit more medieval. Rose and Clive wind up landing in a universe where technology, medicine and superstition hasn’t progressed passed the Dark Ages and there’s a phantasmagorical killer on the loose. Clive makes himself the prime suspect thanks to his behaviour clashing with the puritanical Assessor’s laws, leaving Rose to team up with a new Jackie and a mysterious figure her mother refers to as ‘The Doctor.’
This one had the most interesting setting out of the three stories on offer here, but I can’t lie I had some trepidations going in since a lot of medieval settings can come off as tired and played stereotypes. But this script is beyond that and really crafts a believable world where these Dark Age sentiments have been taken as gospel for far too long. The Assessor represents this fascinating ideology where people’s behaviour can only fall in line with a very slim selection of personality types, most of which are deemed as criminal and worthy of execution. When Clive attempts to use sarcasm its all taken literally because this society hasn’t learnt to see past the very rigid sets of criteria they’ve set out for themselves, it makes for scenes that are equal parts tense and comedic as Benedict keeps you wondering if Clive’s next silly comment will be the one to get him killed.
Rose and Jackie spend most of the run time with ‘The Doctor’, or rather a doctor called Richard Acres. For the most part he resembles the Doctor’s attitude and strong sense for justice. He can talk to animals and he an overall sense of eccentricity. And Hywel Morgan is an easy standout from the guest cast here as he does an excellent job bringing this seemingly benign character to life. Although when his character is revealed to be the phantom killer, there’s some real subtle sinister characterisation coming across in both the performance and script that just makes his character all the more compelling.
This is by far the simplest story of the set, a murder mystery with both an interesting setting and conceptually fascinating society that serves as this grim reminder of the issues of profiling and witch-hunt culture that does still apply to many elements of our social society. Even the more conventional script in the set still manages to stand out as one of AK Benedict’s strongest outing.
Rounding off the set is Emily Cook’s The Rogue Planet. On an Earth which has only hours left before the apocalypse comes, Rose and Jackie must navigate a complex world where Rose is a single mother and Jackie is a day-time television star. The Earth’s rotation is about to stop, but Professor Clive Finch is prepared with his bunkers but can they save enough people in time before the world ends.
This final story in the set begins on a significantly low stakes note. For at least three quarters of the story we get a really touching drama about the relationships you can have with your alternate selves as well the ideas of mother/daughter bonds and how becoming estranged can often be emotionally draining. There’s some genuinely brilliant stuff here, especially in the early Jackie and Rosie (Rose’s equivalent in this universe) and how that developed in to Jackie feeling a genuine connection to the daughter she subtly wishes she had. Rosie’s difficult situation of raising her son on her own while trying to run a café is immediately sympathetic and helps establish this idea that not every universe has a world ending threat but something more emotional.
When the apocalypse does eventually rear its head, I found it to be fairly disappointing. The bunkers built to help deal with the effects of the Earth’s rotation halting need to be populated far quicker than expected. There are notions towards exploring the ethical question of who gets to actually go down there, but it doesn’t have time to ever be the focus and we just get the optimistic notion that all the main characters of the episode get to go down there.
I kind of wish this aspect had been dropped in favour of exploring the relationship dramas, making this a universe that doesn’t need to help but has people who need support could have been interesting but what we still have makes this an excellent one to round out the set. Plus there is one hell of a cliff-hanger that makes me genuinely really excited for the next set to come out.
To wrap all this up then, Other Worlds is perhaps the best surprise this year will offer in terms of Big Finish’s Doctor Who output. It’s a trio of stories which put their writer’s outstanding skill at the forefront; these writers are able to effortlessly craft these intense ethical problems and the drama surrounding them is so compelling. I said this earlier in the review but you really should go and buy this, this is not one to miss!
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