Review by Jacob Licklider
The three episode format is one that Big Finish Productions has often neglected as a possibility for storytelling. The Monthly Range in the late 2000s experimented with splitting stories into 1 three part story and a single part story in releases like Exotron, The Wishing Beast, and The Death Collectors, but by the time Season 27’s scripts were adapted for audio, they were all presented as four episode stories. Now that Big Finish have moved to the box set model of three discs it was quite surprising that it took over a year to reinstate the three part stories with the Fifth Doctor Adventures taking the leap in Conflicts of Interest, still having three discs, but adjusting to this format addresses a major issue the Big Finish box set format has been suffering from. Three episodes essentially means two 90 minute stories, the episodes reaching approximately 30 minutes apiece, allowing both stories to have the breathing room to really explore the ideas John Dorney and Jonathan Barnes bring to the proceedings. These are technically both stories that could be told in the 1 hour format, but that extra 30 minutes allows the chance to slow down and broaden the focus in the best way.
Friendly Fire for instance works because it is a character drama with only four characters in the supporting cast, three mining personnel played by Alice Krige, Greig Johnson, and Tom Alexander, and a town doctor, played by Imogen Church. Much of the first episode is devoted to prologue after the TARDIS makes an emergency landing, the Doctor installing an automatic update while in flight, and eventually the plot moves to a mining colony that has seen a great deal of death. Tegan wants to stay in a leisure resort, but is dragged along anyway to meet an old friend of the Doctor who comes from a species not dissimilar to armadillos (being quite disappointed when we don’t actually get to see space armadillos portrayed). There are several accidents that befall the Doctor, Tegan, and Nyssa as the citizens of this colony are generally afraid to go against Reno, the leader of the miners. This is a very human story, Dorney taking inspiration from The Caves of Androzani which is all about interpersonal conflict without many real science fiction elements. This becomes a story about how war breaks out due to human greed and fear with Alice Krige’s Reno as our primary villain, Krige’s performance being the standout. She gives the character this off-puttingly human touch as the script and direction from Ken Bentley emphasises how normal the destruction of this planet is. In fact, despite the first episode being prologue, the only thing that’s really bringing this story down is the fact that the final dialogue between the Doctor, Tegan, and Nyssa goes on too long into very corny territory, a particular line from Janet Fielding delivered perfectly for an ending segue, but it keeps going. Janet Fielding as Tegan is also the standout in terms of our main cast members, Fielding getting to be the generally acerbic character holding her own in a dangerous situation without letting the cracks show. 9/10.
The Edge of the War perhaps saw Dorney’s lack of science fiction elements and addition of prologue and decided to do the exact opposite. Jonathan Barnes begins this story, set on the eve of World War II near the Maginot Line, in media res, with Tegan running an inn while Nyssa arrives as an artist, the Doctor initially being nowhere to be seen. While this is a historical setting, there are clear issues with time throughout the story, the town eventually sending in a detective from Paris in the form of the Doctor. Barnes’ script follows a surrealist attitude, encapsulating the fear of war breaking out without really alluding to the rise of the Nazis and the start of World War II, slotting in the Count, the villain of the story played by Alistair Petrie, who only knows that some horror is coming. The Count provides this sinister presence which Barnes uses as a red herring, tying into the title of the boxset of Conflicts of Interest having the Doctor in the moral dilemma of forcing time forward. While the Doctor doesn’t know the exact date, he knows that war is coming and there is nothing that can be done to stop it. Sarah Sutton and Janet Fielding are the ones to carry the first episode themselves, Peter Davison as the Doctor only arriving near the cliffhanger. Sutton plays Nyssa as intelligent but off-balance due to the situation while Fielding as Tegan has this brilliant sadness to her performance. The back two-thirds of the story allow Peter Davison some very fun and campy moments, providing just a little bit of comedic relief to a surreal and atmospherically dark story. While his performance is great, the Doctor being out of the first episode is perhaps a mistake, at least in terms of how it means the story really kicks into gear in the second episode when the first is what needs to be a little stronger. Still, the red herrings and final twists about who the Count is and what he wants are especially tragic and using the time loop story in a different way is commendable.
Overall, Conflicts of Interest is a set that manages to take two unconnected stories and unite them incredibly well under the same theme. Both are essentially character pieces that take great advantage of both having three episodes to play around with, keeping things to a more limited cast but both Dorney and Barnes allow their unique style and ideas to shine throughout. This is the format that Big Finish should be promoting more and more with the box sets as three episodes don’t fall into the trap of leaving the listener wanting more. It’s also just a great option for new listeners to see what Big Finish is about. 8.5/10.
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