Christopher Eccleston returns for a new box set that continues the Doctor’s evolution towards the man we met in Rose
The Ninth Doctor Adventures continues with Pioneers, three stories about people pushing humanity’s frontiers ever forward. Well, two stories about people pushing the limits of human endeavour and one about setting up a football league. But more on that later. What’s more significant is that this set breaks new ground for the Ninth Doctor too. Largely due to Christopher Eccleston’s own instincts, his Big Finish adventures have so far steered clear of anything set during his time on television. Moreover, he hasn’t even invited any companions to join him aboard the TARDIS. Instead in each new location, he’s found some plucky soul to help him battle the evils of the day. But he always leaves them behind as he heads to pastures new, like the Littlest Hobo.
But, as Blogtor Who said last time, the series was rapidly running out of ways to make that format interesting. So it’s nice to see Pioneers nudge things on evolve the character, even if only slightly.
The Green Gift brings the Doctor’s quest to find a new home for his companions to a starship with a secret
We begin with The Green Gift, where we discover the Doctor is still travelling with Callun and Doyle. The only survivors of a human colony in Series Two’s finale, Red Darkness, the Doctor brought them aboard with the intent of returning them to Earth. However, we discover here that the trio have had quite the run of adventures together between sets. But their pilot is still on a definite quest to find them a new home where he can drop them. It’s just, as ever, everywhere they land needs saving from some terrible catastrophe or is a dystopia needing overthrowing.
This creates the wonderful push and pull that defines The Green Gift’s first half. The next possible candidate for a new home is the massive spaceship Greenwood. With shades of classic film Silent Running, its pioneers are on a mission to bring an entire replica of Earth’s ecosystem into deep space. It’s a sort of ecological backup from which they can one day reboot the Earth if needed. Among the ship’s vast recreations of forests and farmland, Callun and Doyle become close to Tay and her sheepdog.
Meanwhile, the Doctor and community leader Fiacra (Louise Jameson) cautiously size each other up. They take a tour of the sprawling ship corridors, control decks, and engine rooms behind the scenes. All the while, the Doctor is looking for proof this is a safe and suitable place to leave his young ward. But Fiacra wants assurances the boy is worth their time to adopt as their own. It’s an elegant dance where both point of view are completely reasonable, performed by two top tier actors who colour every line with meaning and personality. Granted, the Irish name Fiacra acquires a hilarious new sci-fi pronunciation as Fee-ACK-Ra. But maybe that’s just how they say it in outer space?
The neatly designed pieces of the plot keeps its surprises hiding in plain sight
Naturally, writer Roy Gill isn’t going to give us an hour of the one time the trio arrive somewhere and it doesn’t turn into a matter of life and death. The nature of the menace threatening the Greenwood unfolds beautifully. Along the way, there are many lovely moments perfectly designed to elicit appreciative coos of realisation from listeners. Though this is one case where you’re best off avoiding Caroline Tankersley’s as always stunning individual cover art until afterwards. Although reasonably subtle, it does rather give the game away when added to the early clues.
With Adam Martyn and Harki Bhambra absent from the cast lists for the rest of the set, Callun and Doyle’s fate is never in much doubt. But the partially sighted teen, his talking dog, and the Time Lord make a great team. It will be a shame if future sets never revisit their time together. The mentor and student relationship with Callun also echoes the Twelfth Doctor and Bill in a way that shows off Eccleston’s incarnation in a whole new light. While his gentle bickering with Doyle helps this foster family unit feel positively domestic.
If nothing else Doyle’s regular need to find himself a tree earns huge points as a brand new way to deliver the Doctor into the adventure after decades of being drawn off course, or receiving distress signals.
Northern Lights brings the Doctor face to face with one of Christopher Eccleston’s in a celebrity historical shining a light on an overlooked hero
Second story Northern Lights has a rather delightful backstory of its own. Having heard that Eccleston was a huge fan of explorer, scientist, statesman,and peacemaker Fridtjof Nansen, the Big Finish team commissioned Robert Valentine to research the topic and develop a script about him. And what a thoughtful and gorgeous present it is. A space collision leaves both the Doctor and the mysterious entity hit by the TARDIS stranded in the Arctic in 1896. Soon the Doctor has encountered Nansen and his companion Hjalmar Johansen, trying to survive the Arctic winter. They’re waiting out the weather before returning to Norway following a failed bid to reach the North Pole. The last of the Time Lords falls easily and immediately into full fanboy mode. Even the most mundane aspects of their odyssey, like Hjalmar’s snoring and polar bear stew are genuine thrills for him.
The third party in the Doctor’s time/space fender bender has soon located Nansen and Johansen too. The starving Totality can only see the explorers as an energy source. Although the threat the alien poses is exceedingly dangerous, the plot pivots around persuading it that humans are people, not food. It’s probably fortunate, then, that humanity’s representatives are two such extraordinary people. The Doctor’s testimony of their future deeds is admittedly a little bit of a history lesson via info-dump. But it’s offset by the steady lowering of your jaw as the list goes on and on.
An extended coda rewards listeners with a splendid pay-off
Sometimes Doctor Who’s patented celebrity historical trope of famous faces stepping up to face deadly dangers feels a little unlikely. But here it’s hard to believe the real life heroes would have done any less. Of all the characters here, they’re the ones most deserving of that title: pioneers.
If Blogtor had a nickel for every time the Ninth Doctor ended an adventure by skipping forward to gatecrash the guest star’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech… Well, he’d have two, but as wise man once said it’s weird it’s happened twice. Fortunately, this is the superior version, which remembers it’s not all about the Doctor. In fact, the final scene may be the most paradoxically heart warming scene in the Ninth Doctor’s Big Finish adventures so far.
The Beautiful Game’s love letter to football is unlikely to convince anyone who’s not already footy mad
If Northern Lights does a fantastic job of introducing listeners to an exciting new subject they probably knew little about, The Beautiful Game fares less well. In theory, this final story in Pioneers is a love letter to football. One told through the prism of the establishment of the first ever professional league in 1888. The Doctor’s come to Manchester to meet William Suddell (one of his 300 favourite Northerners). His arrival is just a week before Suddell helps create professional football as we know it. Unfortunately, for the second story in a row, the Doctor’s also directly, if accidentally, responsible for dropping an alien force with a taste for human flesh into the middle of historical events. The result, as they say, is a game of two halves. But sadly neither aspect of the story ever really comes into focus.
The Doctor bouncing around a hotel with the help of two maids and a stable boy, in pursuit of the tetchy, pouting, greedy Strike should be the stuff of high farce. And certainly Becky Wright gives it his all as the alien. The result’s a cross between Gollum, Slimer from Ghostbusters, and whatever you think an Anglerfish might sound like. But the story seems to forget for long stretches that it’s set in one of the busiest hotels in one of the biggest cities in England. This exposes how small the cast is in a way Big Finish usually skilfully avoids. Treating the location no differently than any remote base under siege also fatally damages any sense of reality. It doesn’t help that the Doctor’s friends for this escapade, Daphne and Donald, just come across as terribly dull.
If the Strike is a metaphor for the worst of football fandom, there’s no positive example to counter it
Indeed, it’s really only with secondary character Eva, a feisty, determined kitchen maid determined to leave the world a better place than she found it, that the whole thing sparks to life. She’s very much in the spirit of Downton Abbey’s Daisy. So much so in fact that you may need to check your cast list to make sure it’s Strike actor Wright on double duty, not Downton’s Sophie McShera. But ultimately, it just makes the Doctor’s choice of Daphne as his temporary companion all the more inexplicable and disappointing. She’s defined by a pointed determination to ‘know her place’ within the class system and to keep her head down. It’s completely at odds with the sort of person the Doctor typically gravitates towards. While the journey she goes on as the Doctor tries to open her eyes a little never really pays off sufficiently.
Meanwhile, as an ode to the world of jumpers for goalposts itself, The Beautiful Game never convinces. In fact, the whole enterprise winds up sounding like an exercise in wealthy, unpleasant, industrialists seeking a way to monetise their hobby. It’s certainly difficult to see Suddell as deserving inclusion in the same bracket of ‘pioneers’ as others in this set. Meanwhile, the Strike stands in as an allegory for obsessive fans who make it their whole personality to justify their worst inclinations.
A vision of the future history being written here rather gets away from itself too. The Doctor’s supposedly celebratory speech touches on football’s use as bread and circuses to placate the working classes, and as a vehicle for bigotry. In feeling around for something positive to say The Beautiful Game can’t find much to say in football’s defence. The closest it comes is suggesting it’s a repository to pour toxic masculinity into in a less damaging way. By the end you’re left wondering if writer Katharine Armitage actually even likes football very much.
All in all, if you really were an alien who dropped from the sky and The Beautiful Game was your first exposure to the sport, you’d likely decide to keep well clear of it…
As he enters his third series at Big Finish, this Ninth Doctor is beginning to change and grow
Ultimately, Doctor Who: Pioneers may be a mixed bag, but it’s also welcome, and overdue, character progression for the Ninth Doctor. Rather than simply uninterested in having travelling companions, he’s now actively resisting his natural instincts. Similarly, previous sets have concentrated on his happy-go-lucky side, his Time Wars scars apparently forgotten. But as of The Green Gift that’s subtly placed in a wider context. One where he’s essentially suffering from delayed shock – avoiding getting emotionally involved with anyone because that will trigger having to face his trauma.
It may not the be the Eccleston/Piper reunion many fans have been clamouring for Big Finish to provide. But it is, as the Doctor’s therapist might say if he had one, excellent progress.
Doctor Who: Pioneers
The Doctor meets many remarkable people on his travels – those at the forefront of innovation and exploration.
From a deep-space colony ship seeking safe haven, to the frozen Arctic wastes, and the foundation of ideas which will touch the lives of millions – the Doctor is there to lend a hand to the human race’s greatest pioneers!
Doctor Who – The Ninth Doctor Adventures: Pioneers is now available as a 4-disc CD box set (+ download for just £29.99). It’s also available as a digital download only (for just £22.99), exclusively here.