Review by Cavan Gilbey
It feels like only yesterday when Eccleston joined the team at Big Finish to star in a batch of new adventures, 8 boxsets later and we have reached the end of what we know the company had planned for the Ninth Doctor Adventure range. It’s been a range with some genuinely spectacular stories, reuniting this Doctor with old friends and old enemies in ways that feel new and fresh. There have been some rough patches on the journey to Shades of Fear but with 24 new stories in this series that is only to be expected. This new boxset I think is the most emblematic of the ranges strongest and weakest elements, it has the characteristic inconsistent quality that has been a bit of a blight on the range but the spirit of the era is captured so vividly with the right themes hitting home and the atmosphere fitting really nicely into what RTD helped create back in 2005. Its not the best one we’ve had from the range, but still manages to keep the momentum from previous sets rolling and delivers an all around good experience with Eccleston at the helm.
Opening up the set is The Colour of Terror from Lizzie Hopley. A charity shop seems to be the focal point for some mysterious goings-on, often involving a sinister connection to the colour red. When the Doctor catches wind of the disappearances, he teams up with a band of locals to put this right and stop an alien menace from painting the town red.
Doctor Who meets Colour Out of Space is a concept that definitely works best on audio, feel like this wouldn’t translate to visuals. Hopely does a great job at setting up this threat, especially by showing these initially small level events like ketchup bottles exploding and it escalates really well into this full on invasion of red. Even the clothes and paint within the charity shop become a part of the threat as the colour processes the owner. It’s a brilliant idea and honestly one of the best monster ideas this series has. I think there is a bit of an issue with the classic ‘we have to describe precisely what is happening’ syndrome but that’s par for the course with very visual monsters like these. Helps a bit when they get a human host, at least gives them a tangible body. There is one bit with a cat which sticks in the mind as memorably horrid, Hopley knows how to do horror well.
It’s a bit of a tricky story to really talk about because when you break this story down narratively it is a very basic Base Under Siege style story. Don’t get me wrong I love BUS stories but it doesn’t do quite enough to separate itself from other stories in this format, in fact there are a lot of the same beats as stories like Silence in the Library. There are some really nice character moments within this frame however, and they are the strongest moments by far. Whether it’s the pantomime evil of Mrs Bevell, the comedic banter of Pete, or the emotional core of Marla and Cath’s love and loss. Hopely captures the domesticity of Davies’ era perfectly and I would not mind seeing the Doctor make a visit back to West Morebry.
This side-cast is one of my favourites of the series, and sure a lot of that is to do with how much I like Frank Skinner and how funny he manages to be in this script. But Hopely does the wise thing of keeping the cast small and nicely developed. Dinita Gohil and Laura Rollins play off of each other really well, I can easily buy the relationship between them and the way the actors play the more emotional scenes between the two is excellent. George Naylor was a surprise for me because I thought Robbie was the most compelling characters in the episode, there’s a great sequence where he and the Doctor discuss Robbie’s criminal record and its got some great bits of writing as the Doctor essentially tells Robbie to own up and start accepting he’s fault for his actions, which Naylor plays so well. Naturally Eccleston is still a treasure and just take it as read that his performance is excellent through out the set.
Next up is James Kettle’s The Blooming Menace. The Fellows Club’s best and brightest seem to be falling victim to the advances of sentient plants, falling in love and getting hitched is the least of their issues as the plants drain the life from their other halves. Some say hope springs eternal, but The Doctor has to do some serious pruning if he is to keep his friends safe.
This is the weak one of the set, mostly just because it doesn’t do enough to stand out from the other two. There is a bit of an unfortunate trend with these sets that the middle story is usually the one that doesn’t hit the highs, this was the case with Kettle’s previous 9th Doctor script Last of the Zetacene which I thought was just not very good. Blooming Menace is unfortunately in the same boat here. There’s an attempt to tell a more comedic, almost Wodehouse style, story but the jokes about the snootiness of the lauded gentry aren’t that funny any more. It doesn’t help that the accents have been heard so many times across the Big Finish catalogue but also there isn’t anything else to say at this point; rich people are stupid, yes we know. Are you going to expand on that? No? Well then get a better idea. There is almost something interesting with the character of Phil, I say almost because there’s just bits of the script that hold it back. The weirdly dismissive moment from the Doctor about it, dismissing her as ‘pretending to be a man’ feels really out of character for the Doctor. Especially Nine who is usually one of the more tolerant and identity-celebrating Doctors.
Killer plants are out baddies her, and I like the idea of them playing on this concept of ‘subjective’ or ‘superficial’ but its not really expanded on all that much. I don’t know what to say outside of it being a bit fun but never really goes in an interesting direction.
The cast are all doing their best. The stand out is Milanka Brooks as Phil, she does a great job at capturing this type of character. There’s a lot of masking within her performance, which helps sells Phil’s own insecurities about her identity and how it could effect her actually finding happiness with the one she loves. It’s good stuff and should have been the true focus of the story as opposed to just generic killer plants. Everyone else are essentially playing variations on the classic Bertie Wooster style character, and while the trope is very tired, the cast all do their best and show some good comedic timing when they need to deploy it.
Finally there’s Red Darkness by Roy Gill. Arriving a colony ravaged by a creature hiding just out of sight. The sunlight promised to aid the colonists but has instead brought their destruction, The Doctor arrives just in time to help make sure someone makes it out alive. Allied with one man and his dog they must stop the hunt of the Vashta Nerada, easier said than done when the Vashta Nerada reveal they have an ally of their own.
This final story of the set is by far the strongest and really captures the scale and feel of a finale. If this is the last solo 9th Doctor we’re getting for a while, then it’s a brilliant one to bow out on. Gill does a great job at evolving how the Nerada actually work, giving us a far more frightening version of the monster which has some interesting call backs to the first story of the set. By making the Nerada able to invade people’s eyes and operate via colour spectrums you make them all the more unknowable and scary, its some great cosmic horror and Gill really ought to do more stuff like this since he has a good knack for it.
Having one of the main characters be blind as well as having his companion be a dog, who naturally is colourblind, allows to have a pair of compelling heroes who aren’t just the Doctor. Callen and Doyle are fantastic characters, a really great bond between them that feels like a brotherly bond more so than just a simple friendship or professional relationship. There’s a moment where Doyle’s voice collar is infected by the Red Darkness and Callen’s fear that he has lost his friend to an unseeable monster is so heart-breaking. In fact there are a quite few excellent moments of emotion here, in particular thinking of the sacrifice of Callen’s mother which is written so well. I think my only issue here is that some of the side characters are a bit too disposable, like I get that they are essentially written to be killed off but they get rid of them quite quickly so it feels a little bit like cheap tension.
Adam Martyn does an amazing job at Callen, capturing the youth of the character perfectly by injecting some believable self-doubt and anxiety which does help sell his terror when everything begins to go wrong. Equally Harki Bhambra is the perfect casting for Doyle, they get the gentle tone of voice which comes with playing man’s best friend down and from there the performance does manage to become more emotionally articulate. Bhambra also gets a brief moment to play a villainous version of the character when the voice collar has been infected, he’s got a good sinister tone and I think he would make a good villain in the future. Rounding them off is Leah Whitaker as Dr Lennox, she’s your classic over ambitious scientist character but Whitaker adds some more nuance to her as she gets to show the selfless side of her during her sacrifice and realisation she is infected by Red Darkness.
On the whole, Shades of Fear does a lot right for me. I love the way the first and last story link up and form this little thematic two parter, the whole set does a really good job at experimenting with the whole Base Under Siege format and the variety of story and tone on offer here is great. Eccleston turns in some excellent performances, evidently now fully settled in into the audio format, but he’s backed up by some really great supporting casts. My few issues regarding the middle entry’s tired feeling stereotypes and comedy and the idea that this set might not work if you aren’t in to the BUS formula do not hold it back from still being well worth your time.
Review: The Ninth Doctor Adventures – Hidden Depths
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