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Wednesday, 28 December 2016 - Reviewed by Martin Hudecek

The Highest Science (Credit: Big Finish / Mark Plastow)

Written By: Gareth Roberts,
Adapted By: Jacqueline Rayner
Directed By: Scott Handcock

Starring: Sylvester McCoy (The Doctor), 
Lisa Bowerman (BerniceSummerfield), 
Sinead Keenan (Rosheen), 
Daniel Brocklebank (Sheldukher), Sarah Ovens  
(The Cell), Rehanna McDonald (Hazel), 
James Baxter (Rodomonte), Tom Bell (Fakrid/Jinka)


Producer/ Script-Editor: Cavan Scott,

Executive Producers: Jason Haigh-Ellery and Nicholas Briggs

Released December 2014 by Big Finish Productions

The planet Sakkrat is widely known across the cosmos for once being home to an ancient empire, which created the legendary technology known as 'The Highest Science'. But eventually this monumental asset ushered in doom, and the civilisation fell into oblivion.

The Seventh Doctor and his keenly intelligent assistant - Professor Bernice Summerfield - are in transit abroad the TARDIS. They are alerted to a remarkable fluctuation in time, which originates from Sakkrat. The Doctor announces to Bernice that this is a 'Fortean Flicker'. The Time Lord's curiosity demands that they both investigate proceedings on Sakkrat immediately.

Other parties are also drawn to the large green planet. The despicable and galaxy-wide infamous Sheldukher, is absolutely determined to obtain the aeons old technology, and will stop at killing no-one. He prepares his mission with the  help of several associates, one of those being the telepathic brain-entity, known as the 'Cell'.

Similarly lethal, if perhaps less malicious and instead more imperialistic and military are the Chelonians - a race of anthropomorphised turtles/tortoises. They are focused on conquest and the eradication of all human 'parasites' that get in their way. And a group of time-displaced humans from 20th century Earth are the latest such irritant.

Many lives will be endangered, and the safety of the wider cosmos could also be in peril. The Doctor's resourcefulness and wisdom will have to employed to full effect, if events are not to spiral out of control completely.


 

This particular adventure for the diminutive, chess master incarnation of the Doctor was one of the earlier ones to be published by Virgin back in the early 1990s. It is most notable for seeing the debut of Gareth Roberts in contributing an original, official story to the Doctor Who canon. In later years Roberts would complete other novels for both the New Adventures and Missing Adventures lines, and then be a semi-regular writer for the reborn TV series itself. Roberts is a lively and witty creative force, whose works under both main showrunners (Steven Moffat and Russell T Davies), helped add some contrast from more po-faced or worthy efforts. He also was vital to the success of the excellent Sarah Jane Adventures spinoff.

There is a lot of Douglas Adams-style humour in this tale, and many of the best one-liners are given to Big Finish stalwart Lisa Bowerman to deliver. It should be noted that Jacqueline Rayner is very familiar with writing for Bernice, and this adds to the rhythm of the adaptation.

Much like Love And War and Nightshade, this reworking has made an effort to reduce the number of players, as well as significantly simplifying one of the major subplots concerning humans that belong to a different time and place altogether. This is effective to an extent in giving the production some vital pace, but there is still the drawback of the plot meandering a little. The opening episodes have some interesting character moments, but also a rather stately set up. Benny's particular storyline - which is the staple one where the Doctor's assistant is separated from him - does fall somewhat flat. The cliffhanger to Episode Two concerning her safety is poor, as it heavily involves a secondary character that is alternately bland and irritating.

However, the concluding pair of episodes have plenty of incident and surprise. There is a two pronged ending, with one adversary comprehensively defeated, but the other crisis needing the Doctor's genius is merely granted a temporary 'solution', and is best described as a Pyrrhic Victory.

McCoy is reasonable enough here, but a little weaker than in Nightshade and some of his better original Big Finish stories. He is at his best facing down either the Chelonians or Sheldukher, and showing a range of outrage, playful disdain and intellectual smarts. His interplay with Bowerman is enjoyable, but clearly a touch less authentic and affecting than the much stronger bond with Sophie Aldred, which many a general Who fan may be more used to.

Some of the one-off characters do engage the heart and/or mind, such as a pair of small time criminals who somewhat deserve justice, but still are angels compared to Sheldukher. The more wholly innocent human characters that have suffered time displacement also are identifiable, if perhaps lacking sufficient audio time to truly be memorable. And the Cell arguably steals the show, with a wonderfully lively portrayal by Sarah Ovens.

However I am not too convinced that Sheldukher needs to say with such arch relish the play's title, and with such frequency. It is somewhat jarring and makes him seem just a bit more unbalanced than is credible. Otherwise, Daniel Brocklebank is serviceable enough in the key adversary role.

The Chelonians have become a staple of the wider Who universe, if surprisingly not yet realised on mainstream TV. They can be fooled on occasion but are still notable opponents. Even if they are as unrelenting in sweeping aside those unlike them, in a manner similar to Daleks or Cybermen, there is a sense of nobility and honour that prevents them being purely 'evil'.

 

The music is quite strong, for the most part, and does help with adding a sense of wonder, dread or urgency as when needed. The audio effects result in the Chelonian creatures having a distinctive voice. It is also commendable how Tom Bell portrays the different creatures so distinctly.

Later on during the days of Virgin Publishing, Roberts would contribute a loose trilogy:  'The Romance Of Crime'/ 'The English Way Of Death'/ 'The Well Mannered War'. All have been adapted by Big Finish, and were critiqued by a fellow reviewer on this site previously.

Overall, this initial story from the pen of Roberts (originally out in book form in 1993) stands up both in past and present as an artefact of what was to come. The author has left his mark in a number of very enjoyable television episodes (particularly The Unicorn And The Wasp and The Shakespeare Code). It is far from flawless, but is still a good read, and now thanks to Rayner's commendable attempts at adaptation, also a worthwhile listen.