Review: Doctor Who – The Dead Star

Review by Jacob Licklider

The Audio Novels range after three releases has taken a very important step. Big Finish Productions has deemed it profitable to publish an audio novel without a returning villain such as the Cybermen or the Daleks. The Dead Star doesn’t have a returning villain and that alone would be enough to get me excited, but then Big Finish made my New Adventures loving heart sing with the triumphant return of Kate Orman to Doctor Who. Orman is perhaps my favorite writer of Doctor Who and for a whole new generation of fans (and several old generations of fans) this will be their introduction to just what she does oh so well, and what an introduction. The Dead Star is going right into new territory for Orman, her first story to feature the Second Doctor and only written because Orman and her husband and frequent collaborator Jonathan Blum were watching the recent animations. While Orman in the behind the scenes doesn’t mention which animation in particular inspired this story, there is a great sense of a direct continuation from The Power of the Daleks as well as The Macra Terror specifically for its aesthetics.

There is something inherently 1960s in terms of the style Orman employs for this novel, keeping the initial pace quite slow. Indeed the first “episode” as it’s formatted, is one of almost complete setup focusing mainly on the Doctor, Ben, and Polly without really introducing other characters. The setting is a version of London whose spatial geometry has found itself to become perpendicular, and perhaps even weirder, the TARDIS is in two places at once. Orman luckily doesn’t use this to stealthily create a multi-Doctor story and The Dead Star is all the better for it since there’s a clear focus of the uncertainty of Ben and Polly’s futures explored through this novel. The year is explicitly 1968, two years after the pair will leave the TARDIS in The Faceless Ones and one year before the moon landing, the world is in the middle of that uncertainty about space travel being possible and what might be out there. Orman sets up Ben and Polly as integrating back into normal life in London and her decision to do so is an interesting one. It becomes an examination of not only who they both are, Ben in particular not going back to his ship due to disappearing for two years, but also the changes which the Doctor’s recent regeneration has brought. Orman excels at portraying the early Second Doctor as kind of off, moving through time and space after the first regeneration with no real sense of identity, reflecting the state of flux in Patrick Troughton’s performance for the first three serials, only really coming together in The Moonbase. There are moments that really bring out the in between nature of the early Second Doctor with the occasional description fitted to Hartnell’s performance left in for Troughton to read which adds another layer to the state of flux that this novel is mainly exploring.

The title refers to a black hole and exploring the 1960s view of black holes is the thrust of the rest of the novel. While it’s not something I wish to give away plot spoilers for, Orman uses the black hole to setup a story that at several points shifts its genre incredibly well, from a quite surreal opening reminiscent of serials like The Space Museum and The Mind Robber, to emulating the tropes of a disaster film, before eventually settling on a hard science-fiction thriller. The Dead Star benefits from Orman’s scientific background, not limiting herself to what would have been known in the 1960s but bringing together modern information with the ideas as to how black holes have been used in Doctor Who throughout its televised history. Finally, The Dead Star shouldn’t be reviewed without at least briefly discussing its narrator. Michael Troughton narrates the novel and there really is something special about his performance. Without returning monsters there is no Nicholas Briggs to take over monster dialogue, just Troughton, the booth, and a fairly lengthy novel to read and he does it wonderfully. Listening you can tell there is an experience with reading specifically audiobooks, knowing how to evoke several characters with minute changes in his vocal performance so as to not strain his voice. This also includes characters who sound different in the prose depending on the context of where you are in The Dead Star which only adds to the enjoyment of the prose. Big Finish is starting the year off on the right foot with a release like this, essentially foregoing returning monsters for the best foot forward of a complex and character driven science fiction story from one of the best writers Doctor Who has ever seen, and one that I can only highly recommend. 9/10.

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