Persuasion (Big Finish)Bookmark and Share

Sunday, 4 August 2013 - Reviewed by Tom Buxton

Persuasion
Produced by Big Finish
Written by Jonathan Barnes
Directed by Ken Bentley
Released: July 2013
If Big Finish’s UNIT Dominion presented its listeners with a renewed definition of the scale and potential of the Seventh Doctor audio range, then Persuasion can be perceived as serving an altogether different purpose. The first instalment in a trilogy of intergalactic adventures featuring Sylvester McCoy’s Time Lord, Tracey Child’s Klein and Christian Edwards’ new UNIT recruit Will Arrowsmith, writer Jonathan Barnes’ latest contribution to the Doctor Who universe does not find itself in want of narrative ambition. That said, a number of elements in this initial chapter restrain it notably enough to affect its overall quality.

The premise Barnes sets upon his listeners in the drama’s opening stages is simple, yet provides an effective and somewhat audacious opening to proceedings akin to that of a pre-titles sequence in a modern episode of Who. Now fully integrated into her role as UNIT’s scientific advisor, Klein is faced with training a relative newcomer to the organisation in Will. Before either of them can so much as utter the word “Kandyman”, however, the TARDIS appears on their proverbial doorstep, as the Doctor whisks the pair of them to Nazi Germany in the aftermath of the Second World War to hunt down a dangerous secret.

Of course, for more than one particular member of the TARDIS crew, the prospect of a trip to the Reichland is arguably threatening enough without a devastating piece of alien technology on the loose. Barnes rightly doesn’t ignore the significance this time period holds for the Doctor’s first German companion, instead seeding in a variety of whispers and hints from Nazi officials and others as to the nature of the information that the seventh incarnation of the Time Lord is holding from his ally at this stage. UNIT Dominion began to tease out inklings of Klein’s forgotten past, and thus to hear these murmurings developed on an explicit level here is enthralling for keen followers of the range.

What’s perhaps less effective in this case, then, is that Barnes appears to have been constrained by the overarching narrative structure set in place for this new trilogy of adventures. Certainly, fans who wanted to bear aural witness to new developments in the saga of Klein’s trip between parallel universes and our own won’t be outright disappointed by this release, but there remains an ever-present sense that certain revelations and events have been collated and stored for future instalments rather than placed here to serve a narrative which alludes to them. It’s one of the only arguable caveats of a trilogy such as this, in that there must always inevitably be loose ends which the opening instalment leaves for its successors to deal with, yet here that truth proves detrimental to Barnes’ narrative vision.

Thankfully, another element of Big Finish’s audio dramas which often has a great effect has not been restrained in this sense. Despite inhabiting a narrative that often falls plague to restricted progression due to its arc functions, the central cast of this release maintain a consistent benchmark of accomplished performances throughout. Sylvester McCoy is on just as fine form as he was in last October’s Dominion, an increasingly deceptive and omniscient presence within the lives of his companions, while Tracey Child maintains that impressive cold and hardened exterior of her oft-vulnerable UNIT advisor. Christian Edwards, a relative newcomer to the scene, must also be awarded great credit too for his stellar initial portrayal of Will, an instantly recognisable and empathetic construct who the audience can grow and bond with over the course of his coming travels aboard that oh-so-familiar time machine.

Elsewhere, the supporting cast of the piece are all served strongly with contemplative and emotive dialogue that rarely fails to hit the mark. Jonathan Forbes seems to revel in the layered depth of portraying a degraded Nazi officer such as Hinterberger in a post-war state, David Sibley’s Kurt Schalk comes across as a constantly elusive and wily rogue whose wider implications in the trilogy have yet to be seen, and Gemma Whelan’s hilarious intercom sequences as the artificial intelligence representing the Khlect foundation truly have to be heard to be believed. It’s testament to the diversity and uniqueness of the range that even now, a performance such as the latter actress’ can still inspire such profound, unforeseen hilarity and compelling listening fifteen years on from Big Finish’s inception.

Once again, though, by analysing and highlighting each of the elements which aid in providing the listener with a ceaselessly compelling and invigorating experience, inevitably the shortcomings which restrain the piece’s potential only become more prominent. Indeed, as with several other releases in the Doctor Who audio range, the notion occurred to this reviewer as to whether perhaps Barnes’ storyline would have been better served in a standalone context rather than that of a trilogy. It’s naturally clear that plot devices including the titular Persuasion machine, Schalk and the mystery of Klein will have roles to play in Starlight Robbery and Daleks Among Us over the next two months, yet this arc has seemingly forced Barnes to limit his line of investigation into the moral state of the Nazis after their defeat and indeed the Doctor’s own growing realisations that his next death and subsequent regeneration seem closer than ever before.

Without a shadow of a doubt, the latter contemplation from McCoy’s incarnation remains one of the most effectively underplayed moments of the entire production. The Doctor suggests to Klein in one way or another that his darker, enigmatic schemes which come into play here are simply his own way of dealing with his seemingly impending demise, his current incarnation making the worst of decisions in order to relinquish the universe of its darkest threats, allowing his next persona a degree of relief. This is a truly intriguing perspective for Barnes to take on a version of the Time Lord who has often been criticised for his eschewed sense of violence and justice, especially if the implications that this version’s transformation into the Eighth Doctor is near. When it comes to penning future instalments of televised Who, showrunner Steven Moffat could do far worse than to use Barnes’ contemplations of the Doctor’s darkest actions as an influence, even if it’s too late for such contemplations to have a direct influence on the portrayal of John Hurt’s new Doctor in the 50th Anniversary Special.

In fact, a recent statement by Moffat regarding the impending celebratory event can help to epitomise the effect of this latest Seventh Doctor release: “One of the things that I’m concerned about this year is that the show must be seen to be going forward. It’s all about the next fifty years, not the last fifty years.” Similarly, here Barnes appears to have adopted a mantra of moving the tales of this incarnation forward in an innovative manner rather than simply revelling in the nostalgia which ultimately killed Who in 1989. For the most part, it’s a supremely effective approach, and one that this reviewer hopes will not be forgotten as we move into escapades involving old foes like the Sontarans and the Daleks next time around.

Persuasion is a challenging audio drama to rate, simply because for every glowing strength it presents in the course of its two-hour running time, there’s a narrative or structural shortcoming which acts as a counterbalance to restrain it from greatness. However, what’s clear is that if the team behind UNIT Dominion were intent on redefining the Seventh Doctor audio range, then the team working on this production were equally intent on kick-starting a rapid chain of exhilarating events which no self-respecting listener is going to want to miss. In spite of its blemishes, Persuasion’s argument is aptly far too compelling for fans of McCoy and Big Finish to ignore, continuing a bold new lease of life for this particular range.