Written By: George Mann
Read By: Jemma Redgrave
Released by BBC Audio, 7 April 2016
Back in November 2013, as Doctor Who’s much-anticipated fiftieth anniversary dawned, the team at the now-late AudioGO were faced with a dilemma – how could they best honour the event with a nostalgia-infused audiobook that still worked as a standalone narrative?
The result, for those who don’t remember it, was The Time Machine, the final instalment of the year-spanning Destiny of the Doctor saga which saw thespians who’d played companions return to voice an original audio adventure set in ‘their’ era of the programme. Much like its predecessors, this eleventh release conveyed a tale which could largely be heard without any prior knowledge of the previous ten storylines, but at the same time, it had the rather unfortunate job of attempting to resolve some of the overarching plot threads that AudioGO had set up over the course of 2013, leading to a rather structurally uneven release that could wholly satisfy neither franchise followers nor newcomers who were just hoping for an engaging standalone dosage of Who.
Rather than taking notes from this somewhat botched attempt at tackling a season finale of this ambitious ilk, however, George Mann – despite having more than confirmed his strengths in the realms of printed literature via his War Doctor novel Engines of War and his successive contribution to BBC Books’ short story-oriented Heroes and Monsters Collection last Summer – seems to have fallen prey to much the same pit-falls in penning the fourth chapter of BBC Audio’s Family of Winter series. Entitled The Memory of Winter, this 70-minute climactic instalment shouldn’t be regarded as a complete failure under any circumstances, but equally, it’s far from a prime example of science-fiction drama at its finest.
That’s not to say that Memory shows no signs of initial promise, nor that its narrative falls wholly flat – in fact, for the first 20 minutes or so, this reviewer couldn’t help but be convinced that the opposite would prove to be true come the credits rolling. In having the Twelfth Doctor and Clara – both of whom he manages to capture the essences of with remarkable accuracy from the outset – summoned to 15th Century France by a complacent time traveller – the last of the titular Winters, who once again summons the Doctor for help – who’s masquerading as a contemporary ambassador in the Hundred Years War, Mann instantly starts to build intrigue as to where the plot will head, particularly when he throws Joan of Arc into the mix and reveals her discourse with the mysterious “Saint of Gallifrey” in the process. Indeed, the latter mention should be more than enough to prompt any fan’s ears to perk up, as should the prospect of us finally discovering how the Winters came to secure the calling cards which Capaldi’s incarnation has so begrudgingly heeded over the course of the series to date.
Yet in spite of the inherent potential of the esteemed scribe’s premise – as well as his introduction of a similarly compelling extra-terrestrial antagonist plucked from previously uncharted realms of Time Lord mythology – this concluding part of the Family of Winter quadrilogy appears more constrained by the show’s present on-screen continuity than any of the preceding three outings were, ironically as a direct result of Mann’s ambition in dealing with the Doctor’s species at a point when he and Clara have yet to experience the events of Face the Raven, Heaven Sent or thus Hell Bent. This in turns renders the final revelations surrounding the nature of Joan’s ‘visions’, the “demon” plaguing Julius Winter’s platoon and the manner of the Doctor’s inevitable triumph against the latter antagonist that much less satisfying to the listener, a shortcoming not helped in the slightest by the struggle Mann seems to have in balancing these numerous plot threads in the space of just over a single hour of airtime.
Usually this would be the point in the review where one would hope to assert that the actor behind the microphone redeems most of the release’s faults – certainly, Clare Higgins’ enthusiastic, unpredictable approach to narrating the series’ opening chapter, The Gods of Winter, ensured that even its somewhat underdeveloped secondary characters still came off as engaging constructs for the Doctor and his Impossible Girl to interact with. In a surprising turn of events, though, Jemma Redgrave’s voice work leaves plenty to be desired, lacking the vigour she previously brought to her portrayal of Kate in both the TV show and Big Finish’s UNIT: Extinction as well as the impressively accurate differentiation of tones which Higgins employed in order to distinguish Capaldi’s oft-brash Time Lord from Coleman’s feisty but compassionate companion, with the result being that it’s not entirely difficult for one’s immersion in the storyline to be broken at times here. Perhaps it’s just a case of Redgrave not having much experience in the realm of audiobooks – finding voices for a wide ensemble of characters can’t be a walk in the park, after all – or perhaps the material simply didn’t inspire her to the same extent as Big Finish’s scripts, but either way, it’s a shame that barring a decent stab at a French accent for Joan and the soldiers, her contribution to proceedings does more to detract from Mann’s tale than to add any much-needed depth.
Not unlike November 2013’s The Time Machine, then, The Memory of Winter doesn’t so much end The Family of Winter with an impressive bang as – to paraphrase T.S. Eliot’s 1925 poem “The Hollow Men” – with an underwhelming whimper. Keen fans of Doctor Who’s occasional historical romp-style episodes like The Romans, The Unquiet Dead or The Fires of Pompeii might well find themselves interested enough in discovering Mann’s take on the Hundred Years War to warrant a purchase in this instance, but given the vastly superior manner in which Mann manages the various plot threads, continuity connections and overall structure of the previously-mentioned Engines of War, venturing to recommend Memory over that novel seems dishonest at best and downright counterproductive at worst. Those desperate for more Twelfth Doctor action will surely find elements to like here, but those wanting their dosages of Who to maintain their faith in the show in the midst of its year-long absence from our screens would be best advised to look elsewhere.